Arising from one man’s collection, the Ogden Museum strives to serve a broad audience while showing that Southern art is not merely regional.
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This article is part of our latest special section on Museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.
NEW ORLEANS — A signature work at a recent exhibit at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art is a photograph of a cellphone showing on its screen the framed image of an antebellum mansion.
It is a photograph within a photograph. But what makes it an eye-catcher is that the pictured iPhone is clearly in the hand of a Black man, RaMell Ross.
Mr. Ross, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, artist and photographer, often documents the people and land of Hale County, Ala.
Over the decades, some of the giants of Southern photography — Walker Evans, William Eggleston and William Christenberry — have made Hale County their subject. They are, of course, white men. By featuring this particular image, Mr. Ross and the curators of the Ogden are demonstrating their determination to show this place in a new way.
The Ogden, in a glass and steel tower in the Warehouse/Arts District of New Orleans, is one of only a handful of museums dedicated exclusively to the art of the American South. With more than 74,000 square feet of exhibition and event space, it is the largest.
Showcasing the diversity of the modern South is central to the Ogden’s mission. “There’s a lot of diversity to the South,” said Bradley Sumrall, 50, a curator of the collection. “It’s not really this Margaret Mitchell sort of place anymore. That exists, of course. But it’s an antiquated stereotype.”
Making the point early this spring, the Ogden’s staff was smashing stereotypes about the South with a jazzy one-man show by the Cuban American modernist Luis Cruz Azaceta.
On a different floor was a new gallery featuring the African-accented sculptures of Lonnie Holley. Down the hallway was a room dedicated to the giant of American figurative painting Benny Andrews. Mr. Andrews, the son of Georgia sharecroppers, was an early supporter of the Ogden, and, until his death in 2006, a trustee. The Ogden owns more than 200 examples of his work.
Diversity and inclusion have, in recent years, become watchwords at many museums in the South, especially since the Black Lives Matter summer of 2020. Executives at many Southern institutions are now trying to overcome what is seen as a discriminatory past by broadening their presentations and trying to appeal to underrepresented audiences.
The Ogden has been a leader in this trend. It is also a new institution, less than 20 years old, and the lack of tradition gives the curators, Mr. Sumrall and Richard McCabe, considerable freedom in developing programs.
Their boldness has won admiration from peers. Angie Dodson, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Ala., said she’s “a tremendous fan.”
“They are the authoritative voice for Southern art and they do these extraordinary exhibitions that are sweeping in scope and intimate in feel.”
Ms. Dodson has particularly warm memories of a 2019 retrospective of the Alabama photographer and artist William Christenberry. “It was beautiful and profound.,” she said “It still haunts. They speak in an authentic voice and they are about things that matter.”
The idea behind the New Orleans museum — that it be both specifically Southern and diverse — began with Roger Houston Ogden, a real estate developer.
Mr. Ogden, now 75, had been collecting art since he was a college student in the 1960s. Over the decades, he assembled what was probably the most substantial private collection of Southern art in the country.
“I just fell in love with collecting,” he said. “I bought with my eyes — I could see what great art was. I looked in undiscovered territory, which meant I often bought from unrecognized women and Black artists.”
Mr. Ogden’s collection was broad. And huge. It documented almost every aspect of Southern art, from the colonial period through the present day. By the 1990s, he said, he owned at least 1,000 paintings, sculptures and photographs.
Among his treasures was a room-size work, a mural really, by the abstract expressionist Ida Kohlmeyer; vibrant scenes from Clementine Hunter, who spent her whole life on a plantation; a Sam Gilliam drape painting, and a work by Julian Onderdonk, a Texas landscape artist famous for his depictions of fields of bluebonnets. There were canvasses rolled up under the beds; the cupboards were full of Sophie Newcomb vases and George Ohr pottery.
“The collection,” he recalled, “became more than any one person or family should own. People who knew art said it needed to be public.”
That’s when Mr. Ogden began thinking about a museum. He envisioned using the collection to transform what he saw as an incomplete history of American art. The art world headquartered in New York, he believed, had long excluded Southern expressions from the national canon, categorizing most of it as mere regionalism. He hoped his museum might provide a corrective, he said.
But how does one person, even an extremely wealthy one, organize a museum start-up?
Mr. Ogden began by partnering with the University of New Orleans, where the school’s foundation helped him obtain a building site. Mike Foster, then the governor of Louisiana, arranged a $3.5 million special appropriation for a building fund. An additional $2.2 million was provided by the family of the New Orleans philanthropist William Goldring.
Mr. Ogden contributed 602 artworks. In the trove were masterworks by Lynda Benglis, Robert Rauschenberg, Jacqueline Humphries, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Thornton Dial, Purvis Young, and Minnie Evans.
Today, the permanent collection holds more than 4,000 artworks. All of them are by Southerners, or their subject is the South.
“We’re a young museum that people want to give to,” said William Pittman Andrews, 51, the museum’s executive director since 2012. “Everything we’ve acquired is in the spirit of Roger’s founding donation, which means it’s got to be Southern and a top example of an artist’s work.”
When the Ogden opened in the summer of 2003, the staff hadn’t yet fully defined its purpose. This museum would be a center for scholarship, but what else?
An answer would come through trial and error and with Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans almost two years to the day after the museum’s opening.
Luckily, the Ogden’s building was relatively undamaged. It reopened after eight weeks and, for a while, served as an informal community center. People went there on Thursday nights for jazz and healing. The concerts created an unexpected bond between New Orleanians and the Ogden’s staff. They also provided a road map for the museum.
Community engagement had always been on the Ogden’s agenda, but after Katrina, it became central. Exhibiting artists were urged to give lessons and demonstrations. Local creators were invited to sell at the gift shop.
Art competitions — including a special one for talent from historically Black colleges — were launched. As were new types of programming appealing to the many ethnic groups who live in southern Louisiana. There was a show on the history of bounce music — a style of New Orleans hip-hop. Another focused on New Orleans graffiti.
That outreach was at the center of the Ogden’s mission was something the Tulane-based ceramist Christian Dinh, 29, learned recently.
Two years ago, when bias attacks on Asian Americans were in the news, Mr. Sumrall approached Mr. Dinh with an idea. Might he assemble an exhibit illustrating the contributions of Vietnamese Americans to the region? Though Vietnamese immigrants are among the largest ethnic groups in southern Louisiana, their impact was rarely acknowledged.
Mr. Dinh, the son of immigrants, produced a show he titled “Nail Salon.” The exhibit consisted of 11 porcelain sculptures telling the story of Vietnamese American women through symbols taken from the manicure parlors where they had worked. “The nail salon was a beacon,” Mr. Dinh said. “I wanted to show how with them, the women led their community to success.”
Mr. Dinh’s exhibit closed in March, but while it ran many Vietnamese immigrants visited the Ogden for the first time. “Bradley’s goal was to reach out to the Vietnamese community and it worked,” Mr. Dinh said. “People in the community told me that they were blown away that a Vietnamese artist was shown by a museum in New Orleans.”
“A museum needs to be nimble to respond to the community we live in,” Mr. Andrews, the executive director, said. “In this instance, we were able to do it.”