Helping Haiti on its Earthquake Anniversary

By Candice Russell

Sunday, January 12th, marked a grim anniversary, drenched in the blood of many thousands of people who died and were injured in the earthquake of 2010. The Miami Herald’s Issues & Ideas section of that day’s newspaper has the statistics — 316,000 dead and 300,000 injured.

It is sobering to reflect on the devastatingly large human loss from which so many families in Haiti are still suffering. Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers died. Children were orphaned and parents left bereft, with their offspring taken from them.

Then there is the cold hard fact of displacement. According to the Miami Herald, 174,974 people were still living in makeshift camps as of last September. Since there were 1.5 million people in camps right after the earthquake, this relatively smaller number seems like progress. But is it? Shouldn’t there be NO camps at all and people housed in structures strong enough to withstand the next terrible earth rumble? And who is to say there won’t be another earthquake of stunning proportions within the next decade?

Yes, Haiti can re-build, maybe even better, if not also wiser, in regard to the ground’s unpredictable seismic shifts. But Haiti cannot re-build in exactly the same way. Much of what was lost in the way of buildings, artifacts, and art is gone forever and cannot be re-claimed, re-imagined, or re-constructed.

The visual heritage of the country should not be given short shrift. In fact, more attention needs to be paid to the efforts of a few groups still mindful of Haiti. One worth honoring is the Toussaint Louverture Foundation, based in New York state. It is committed to repair the Musee d’Art Haitien du College St. Pierre in Port-au-Prince. With an exhibit and sale of original Haitian artworks last September, restoration on damaged paintings at the museum has begun.

This work proceeds as a result of the sale of 36 paintings at the exhibit and net proceeds of $31,000. But the monetary goal of the foundation is considerably larger — $220,000. To make a donation to the cause, telephone 1-917-499-3638. Or email

Now is the time when you hope Haitian luminaries like singer Wyclef Jean, who once had political aspirations to be the president of Haiti, are privately holding soirees with their moneyed friends to help re-build Haiti and save its artwork. This is the time when good people like actor Sean Penn may be operating in bigger ways than we know to save the adopted country he loves and continues to help.

I say thank you to the experts and art conservators of the Smithsonian Institute who were galvanized into action by the 7.0 earthquake of 2010. As Bill Brubaker wrote in the Smithsonian magazine, “Thousands of paintings and sculptures — valued in the tens of millions of dollars — were destroyed or badly damaged in museums, galleries, collectors’ homes, government ministries and the National Palace.”

Damaged and endangered were important archives, libraries, and personal collections of artworks. The situation right after the earthquake must have seemed hopeless.

But consider what good works have been done since them, ¬†due to the collaboration and financial support of the Broadway League, USAID, and the Affirmation Arts Fund, among other organizations that have stepped up. At the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, a place of huge historical significance for the cause of Haitian art, 4,000 paintings and more than 500 sculptures have been treated. The team from the Smithsonian managed to save three Biblically inspired murals from the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral — a miracle in itself.

The 3,000-item Lehmann Vodou collection in a Petionville home also got a visit from the team. It is a spectacular gathering of objects I was privileged to see in 2003. In total, the Smithsonian team saved and treated 35,000 items in Haiti in different places. Its members also left a legacy of knowledge, having trained 150 Haitians in basic conservation work.

There is more good news. With help from the Stiller Foundation, Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince is building and operating a cultural conservation center on campus. Conservation arts and sciences will be on the curriculum. The Smithsonian plans to send experts to the university as consultants.

All of these efforts are remarkable and worthwhile. So how can you help Haiti? Go there. Buy the art on streets and in galleries. Volunteer at an orphanage. Or send donations to charities with a proven track record of consistent help to Haiti, like Doctors Without Borders and Food for the Poor.

Another way to consistently help Haiti is to become a collector of Haitian art, which doesn’t require a king’s ransom. Most of the art produced in Haiti during the last 70 years is well within the affordable range for a middle-class American. Whether you never get to Haiti, you can still support the country by celebrating the vibrant tradition of its art in all forms.