The Nightcrawler King
At Home with the Man Who Helped Bring African Art to New Orleans
By Michael Adno for Artsy magazine (Available online here)
It was the light, the promise, and the magnolias that first drew William Fagaly to New Orleans 53 years ago. The sense that he could make a life here seduced him, but when he was hired to build an African art collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in 1966, there was little sense that he would become inextricably bound to the city’s future through his interest in its past.
When Fagaly took the job, the museum’s collection held almost no African art, which is to say it poorly reflected the heritage of this place and its history, because arguably, New Orleans was and remains culturally America’s most African city. But in the span of Fagaly’s 50 years as the museum’s African art curator and, later, its assistant director, NOMA assembled one of the most impressive African art collections in the country, alongside its standout collections of contemporary and self-taught art—which Fagaly also helped form. Following his interests beyond African art, he’d become haunted by the self-taught artists of south Louisiana, and eventually played a role in self-taught art spilling into the mainstream. Through his interest in place and in those who lent it character, Fagaly helped stake out New Orleans as one of the most important artistic centers in America. He became endeared to the city through his reverence for the things that make New Orleans so distinctly, inexorably New Orleans.
In the French Quarter, where the streets hum with the energy of centuries past, it’s only fitting that Fagaly’s home seems as eclectic and coded as the city to which it belongs. “I instantly loved the city,” Fagaly said as he sat surrounded by books, masks, and artworks. “I felt like this is the place I want to live.”
That lovestruck moment came in 1966, after an interview at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, went poorly. In his hotel room, Fagaly saw an open position for a registrar at what was then called the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art. He looked up the director’s number, gave him a ring, and in the span of a few minutes, the course of his life took shape. After an interview, Fagaly was offered the registrar job, with an annual salary of $4,500.
Later that year, Fagaly left Bloomington, Indiana, in his lime-green Mercedes, and headed south. As he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the character of the country in the midst of the Civil Rights movement was cast in sharp relief with the medley of murder, protest, and marches. As Fagaly pushed through Tennessee and into Mississippi, the moral compass of the American South became visible. This was decidedly a different world than the Midwest.
As soon as Fagaly nestled into New Orleans, he took every chance to venture out and get a sense of the places at the city’s edges. “I wanted to get to know where I was,” he said. The spirit of this city at the confluence of the Mississippi Delta, Texas, and Arkansas belonged just as much to Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean Basin, maybe even more than to America. The laissez-faire atmosphere quickly seeped into Fagaly’s bones.