It has been called "the most comprehensive collection of Southern art in the world," and its highrise main exhibition building, Goldring Hall, has been widely described as dazzling. Now the Ogden Museum of Southern Art celebrates its fifth anniversary " Aug. 23 " with the opening of a new satellite facility in Florida as well as special events and activities at its New Orleans home base from Aug. 21 to Aug. 24.
In fact, it is the fifth anniversary of the opening of the museum's permanent facility on Camp Street after years of leading a somewhat gypsy-like existence in temporary quarters and traveling exhibitions. As a private collection that eventually morphed into a museum, the Ogden was decades in the making, and if real estate mogul Roger Ogden provided the original spark with the core of its holdings, it was an undertaking that ultimately engaged the talents of many, ranging from the late oilman Pat Taylor, who provided the grand 19th century Henry Hobson Richardson-designed former library overlooking Lee Circle, to the University of New Orleans, which participates in the museum's operations through a unique public-private partnership.
Like so many of the things that have come to define this city, the Ogden is yet another example of something that "just grew' seemingly almost of its own accord, and in a rather organic, even roundabout, way. It all began when Roger Ogden decided to buy his mother a painting as a Christmas gift in 1966, when he was a student at LSU. It was Blue Lagoon, by early 20th century New Orleans impressionist Alexander Drysdale, and he had to get his father to help him finance it. That first purchase was the beginning of what would eventually lead to an extensive personal collection that by the 1990s was large enough to form the basis for traveling national exhibitions and to set the stage for what would become a very active and prominently placed New Orleans museum.
Roger Ogden's collection grew to encompass the leading names in New Orleans and Southern art in the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th century component is especially strong, featuring work by painters such as William Buck and Richard Clague, artists who were in many ways the Southern equivalents of the legendary Hudson River school of American transcendentalist painters. But the Ogden Museum itself puts more emphasis on 20th century and contemporary Southern art, partly because renovation work on the vintage Richardson-designed 19th century wing is still ongoing, and partly because the ever-shifting dynamics of contemporary art provide opportunities to engage the community in more immediate ways.
In fact, community engagement has been one of the museum's strong suits since the splendid, Barron-Toups-Concordia-designed Goldring Hall opened in 2003. Besides art classes and programs for kids, every Thursday night from 6 p.m. till 8 p.m. is party time, when the Ogden After Hours series features entertainment by a variety of area musicians.
As one of the first arts institutions to reopen in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Ogden was instrumental in helping people keep the faith with popular events that reminded local folks why we live here. By dealing with the broader cultural milieu, including music, and treating all of it as an interwoven living organism rather than an assortment of dry artifacts, the museum has become part of the fabric of city life to an extent that is unusual for a traditional arts institution. Outreach of that sort has helped to smooth over the rough patches that perhaps inevitably attend the development of any new cultural institution of such ambitious scope. The challenge will be to consolidate its notable achievements into an ever-smoother trajectory into the future.
- Me, Knife, Diamond and Flower is in front of the Ogden Museum as part of the Sculpture for New Orleans project, which places large works in public spaces.