Another year down, and now, suddenly, it's time to take a good, hard look at where we've been and where we're going. And one thing you can say for sure about 2003 in the local art world is that it hasn't passed without incident; there were some truly noteworthy beginnings and endings. It is a rare year indeed when New Orleans loses three well-known galleries while gaining two major fine-arts venues, as well as a smattering of other new exhibition spaces, and this was just such a year.
Yet, it was also routine in some ways, with a few amazing shows and some ho-hum ones, as the whole scene expanded and contracted mightily, running on empty all the while. Still, the upside was very up. The two major new venues are, of course, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Both are important additions that increase New Orleans' visibility as a leading American art city.
Although the Ogden opened in late summer to much fanfare, that was merely phase one: the 20th century and contemporary collections located in Goldring Hall, the pristine new high-rise structure created specifically to house them. The 19th century and earlier work will be contained in the old Romanesque, Henry Hobson Richardson-designed Howard Library wing, slated to open in 2004, and while it will lack the soaring atrium and visual drama of Goldring Hall, it will contain a number of the historically important paintings such as the Meekers, Clagues, Bucks and the Martin Johnson Heade that many consider the crown jewels of the collection. With its opening, the largest, most prominent museum of Southern art anywhere in the world will be made whole, newly born into a new century, with room to grow.
While the Ogden is the new, new thing, the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden managed to emerge, like Venus on her bivalve shell, fully formed, a mature, manicured oasis adjacent to its parent institution, the New Orleans Museum of Art. To see it on a crisp, cool and sunny day is to be impressed, for it is truly difficult to find anything to criticize or complain about.
With 50 major works by artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Louise Bourgeois, George Segal, Kenneth Snelson, Allison Saar and Arman among others scattered over five acres of rolling terrain, it manages to seem even bigger than it is. It's also the kind of collection that, while largely reflecting the taste of one man, Sydney Besthoff, would be imposing in any city in the world. Perhaps because so much is the result of one man's eye, it is diverse yet cohesive, quirky yet high quality throughout. And the site is superbly landscaped with gentle contours traversed by meandering paths and lagoons that allow for a whimsical, free-ranging experience. Even without the $25 million dollar sculpture collection, it would be an aesthetically fulfilling place to spend a little time, and best of all, it's free and open to the public, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. through 5 p.m.
So much for the good news. We recording angels can never neglect the other side of the ledger, so it must be noted that this was also a difficult year in the local art world. And while promising new art spaces were born, including the John Stinson Gallery and the Arthur Roger satellite gallery in the Renaissance Hotel, we must still mourn those that fell by the wayside. This month marks the passage of a full year since the Galerie Simonne Stern, which had been in continual operation since 1967, closed its doors as its owner/director, Donna Perret, married Compaq computer founder Ben Rosen and decamped to New York. Today the building sits empty, still unrented, a dark and ghostly monument to its former glory. Meanwhile, many of its former stable of artists, including some of this city's best known, remain in the wilderness of the galleryless. Other established art galleries that ceased to exist this year include the Wyndy Morehead Gallery and the Mario Villa Gallery, a Magazine Street institution for nearly two decades. And there you have it, a year of news from the local art world, 12 months of ups and downs, of joys and sorrows -- a year in the life of a unique New Orleans community in all of its soap-operatic glory.
- The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which features (among other things) Arman's Obelisk for Pablo Casals, joined the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as the two major additions to this year's art scene.