In the fairy tales of long ago, the shoemaker took credit for the work actually done by a devoted cadre of elves. The Norton Art Gallery has its own dedicated elves, but unlike the fairy tales, they like to acknowledge their contributions. These are the men and women who design, clean, and maintain the buildings and gardens, put up the exhibitions, provide security, and welcome and enlighten visitors. They even take on the odd extra duty including acting as a midwife for ducks and quails, or discouraging garden visitors from too enthusiastically emulating the birds and the bees.
Among the chief elves is Gerry Ward, the Grounds and Building Supervisor. Gerry’s been working with the Nortons for nearly thirty years, the last fourteen of them at the museum, so he’s become an expert on what’s needed. Gerry’s keen eye has to be everywhere, from making sure paintings are hung at the correct eye-level to preventing vandalism in the Norton’s botanical gardens. He also oversees work on the big things, such as remodeling a wing of the museum, or adding entirely new and up-to-date electrical systems. Pieces of art are actually very sensitive things, reacting—sometimes disastrously—to the wrong levels of humidity, light, heat, and other variables. So it falls to Gerry to make sure that all systems within the museum are working properly and replaced when they don’t. In addition, he must ensure that the infrastructure itself is in top-flight condition, as well as the exhibition features like cabinets and vitrines within it.
Fortunately, he has help, mostly in the form of his assistant, Jeremy Hammontree, and longtime Norton staffer, Kenneth “Kenny” Monroe. As Gerry emphasized, “it’s a team effort”. Jeremy’s the lucky staffer who got the afore-mentioned duck and quail duty (with a few chickens thrown in). Five years into his tenure at the Norton, he’s become adept at helping Gerry keep the equipment up-to-date and running smoothly. In his “spare time”, he lends himself to building the beautiful pedestals supporting the sculptures at the museum, based on designs by Lewis Norton. Kenny takes care of making sure the interior of the building is kept spotless and helps Gerry and Jeremy hang and light the exhibitions. He also lends a hand to whichever department needs him the most at any given moment, from the library to the education department and beyond.
Of course, the first member of the Norton family most visitors encounter is a guard. Frequently, this will be long-time Norton employee, Mike Merrit, who has become an expert at greeting visitors and letting them know the ground rules in a friendly and welcoming manner. Head guard Jeff Remedies aids Mike in this endeavor and also keeps an eye out for any difficulties encountered by the staff of seven guards as they interact with guests of the museum. All the guards are warm and personable, in addition to being knowledgeable about the art. They don’t just warn people not to touch—often, they also inform them of interesting information about the piece or the artist not available on the wall text. Some of them go even further. Guard Fred Cox has begun to provide tours for visitors at regular times during the week.
Along with the guards, the Norton makes sure the artwork, the visitors, and the staff are all safe by arranging for Caddo Parish Sheriff Deputies to maintain a presence in the museum and on the grounds. Led by Rick Farris and Jackie Winston, these armed officers of the law make sure the Norton is a safe and secure environment for everyone. Also great with a quick joke or quip, they too have come to know the museum well enough to offer the occasional insight into the art for attendees.
It can’t be denied that, for some visitors, the real draw of the Norton is its extensive botanical gardens. While the museum has long been surrounded by beautiful azalea gardens and majestic pine and oak trees, the evolution of its grounds into the Norton Botanical Gardens is largely the work of the multi-talented Kip DeHart and her grounds crew of seven. Kip developed the design for the aquatic plantings in the Norton’s water gardens and worked to create various new zones and ecosystems. Visitors love wandering over the course of a day from the desert of the xeriscape garden to the rainforest grotto to the koi and goldfish-stocked pond at the base of the garden slope. In addition to adding new beds regularly—including a Japanese maple bed boasting more than fifty different varieties—Kip and her crew regularly plant and re-plant other beds, making sure the gardens are a visual delight year-round. Recently, two new beds with sitting areas were installed just outside the garden gates, ensuring that walkers, joggers, and passersby have an enticingly lovely place to sit and enjoy even when the gardens are closed. In the meantime, the azaleas that marked the gardens beginning have now extended to roughly 10,000 plants and a large number of different varieties, both native and hybrid.
The work of all these elves will be on display at the Norton’s BLOOM! festival from March 22-24, 2018, providing an opportunity to see what their dedication has wrought. Gerry Ward said, “It’s a great privilege to work here.” It’s also a great privilege for the Norton to have these sometimes unsung folks to make its beauty look, oh, so easy.