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The Ogden Museum of Southern Art: New “New” Orleans, Louisiana

Story and Photos by mary gallagher

One never knows the full impact of even the smallest gestures we make as sometimes until years go by. The new Ogden Museum of Southern Art, University of New Orleans, has its roots in a gift of art from Roger Ogden and his father to his mother nearly 40 years ago. This marked the beginning of a collection that today forms the heart of this significant new museum.

Louisiana businessman and philanthropist Roger Ogden first saw Blue Lagoon, a Southern landscape by the early 20th century artist Alexander Drysdale, at a Baton Rouge, Louisiana art gallery in 1966. Captivated by its beauty, Ogden, a college student, persuaded his father to help him buy the painting for his mother as a Christmas gift. There are nine Drysdale’s in the collection and it was easy for me to see why the Ogden’s sought this artist’s work.

Roger Ogden went on to assemble one of the first collections to focus solely on Southern art, helping to revive the forgotten works of great Southern artists and preserve an important aspect of Southern culture.

By the mid-1980s, the collection included 19th-century portraits by Jacques Amans, landscapes by William Henry Buck, Richard Clague and Clarence Millet, and works such as Mother Louisiana, an allegorical portrait of the state of Louisiana by Dominico Canova. Gradually, he expanded his collection by including artists from other Southern states, and adding sculpture, photography, works on paper, self-taught art, and mixed media. By the 1990s, the Ogden Collection was recognized by art historians and collectors as one of the most significant of its kind in the nation.

As is a common theme with large collectors and to the ultimate benefit of the general public, Ogden recalls, “I realized that the Collection could not remain the responsibility of one individual or family, but that it should belong to the public, and that it was incumbent on me to make plans for its placement as a whole.”

In 1994, Ogden first approached the University of New Orleans Foundation offering a large portion of his Southern works and this lead to the formation of The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Since then, the Collection has continued to grow, through the generosity of donors from across the United States, to become the largest and most comprehensive assemblage of Southern art in the world. The extraordinary Collection significantly boosts the visibility of these works, and complements other centers of Southern art, such as the Morris Museum of Art in Georgia and the Greenville County Museum in South Carolina. The August 2003 opening of the Ogden Museum supports the growing national recognition of Southern art and celebrates Ogden’s original vision to share his passion with the public.

The Ogden Museum’s multi-year preservation and construction is one of New Orleans’ major urban projects, adding significantly to the city’s plan for marketing itself as a “New New Orleans,” reflecting renewed urban development and marketing the city as a major cultural destination. The project has helped to rejuvenate the Warehouse District and completes the neighborhood’s transformation, reflecting the importance of cultural tourism in New Orleans and in cities throughout the United States. Twenty-two galleries like the edgy independent Jonathan Ferrara Gallery are listed in the superb New Orleans Arts District Association brochure and on their website.

Our visit for the opening of the Ogden was a real eye opener to this New “New” Orleans. Just seven blocks from the French Quarter is a quiet wonderful area of boutique hotels, classy lofts and condominiums in historic warehouses, stunning new architecture, galleries and superior dining. In fact like so many cities in America, New Orleans is likely no longer affordable in most areas for the so-called average income. We saw constant renovation and construction throughout every area of the city.

The new Renaissance Arts Hotel, originally a furniture store warehouse built in 1910, features dazzling examples of glass art including Dale Chihuly light fixtures in the lobby and an adjoining glass gallery. The contemporary furnishings of guest rooms were edgy enough but certainly didn’t keep one from a comfortable nights sleep. We were particularly impressed by the rooftop pool and adjoining exercise room. A wonderful spot to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the city before or after your swim and workout. The convenient location also made the arts district as well as the French Quarter a moderate to easy walk. The wonderful Trolleys also ran nearby along the River and other streets.

The La Cote Brasserie restaurant, just off the lobby is another sleek sweeping contemporary setting. Here are wonderful unique dining interpretations by acclaimed Chef Richard “Bingo” Starr and not all “Cajun” hot. Like the hotel, La Cote Brasserie had just opened and the house was packed every night. I ate a huge amount of everything! Managing partner is Rene Bajeux, one of 50 French Master Chefs living in America.

The University of New Orleans Foundation established this museum of Southern Art, constructed in a complex of buildings in the Lee Circle area of the New Orleans. By 1999, the museum’s five-story Stephen Goldring Hall was under construction and its historic library was under restoration.

Goldring Hall, featuring 47,000 square feet of exhibition space, stands as part of a larger, three-building complex that includes the significant 1889 Howard Memorial Library (later renamed the Patrick F. Taylor Library) designed by the important American architect and Louisiana native,