When the viewer moves closer, it becomes apparent that the sign is heralding the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. "See the South," it says and then gives the Web site: www.ogdenmuseum.org.
This same circle re-appears on the welcome mat at the home of real estate developer Roger Ogden, who has donated 1,200 works of art from his private collection to form the basis of this museum. The circle stands for Ogden. However, upon entering Ogden's home, the viewer considers that the "O" might also be a cry of surprise, for every available inch of wall space is covered from baseboard to crown molding with carefully preserved and illuminated paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the front hall hangs Dominico Canova's allegorical work Mother Louisiana, which depicts a dark-haired woman sitting before a fountaining palm tree; she parts her blouse to nurse a naked child on her lap, while several more children cluster at her feet. Below this painting, a sign thanks us for not smoking.
Moving on throughout the house, rooms open onto staircases and hallways and more rooms. Over the fireplace is a Thomas Sully portrait of Mrs. James Robb and her three daughters, whose house on Washington Avenue was the first location of Newcomb College. And way up against the ceiling in another room is an unusual example of the work of Alexander Drysdale, who is noteworthy here as the artist whose work inaugurated Ogden's vast collection. When it is eventually brought down and hung at eye-level in the museum, visitors will get a whole new perspective on Drysdale.
Ken Barnes, who is Ogden's partner in both life and art collecting -- Barnes has curated the collection before sending it to the museum -- describes this crowded type of art presentation as "salon style, like they did in Paris." In truth, the paintings hang in this closely stacked manner more out of necessity than homage to an old Parisian salon. Ogden owns more art than he has walls to show it. Much of what has been hanging in his home has already gone downtown to the museum, while the rest is being packed up to go, a process which has put the house into some disarray. The Walter Anderson wall, for instance, now holds only harsh empty hooks. A damaged patch in the sunroom wallpaper used to be covered with an abstract. Ogden's cook Anita is complaining, "They only left me two paintings in the kitchen." The rooms are starting to feel undressed.
"I used to have the same nightmare all the time," says Barnes. "Where I'd walk downstairs and burglars had snuck in while I was sleeping and stolen all the art. In the dream I'd walk around and see nothing but bare walls. Now I wake up, and it's really happening!" Ogden himself seems less fazed by the denuding of his house. He has hundreds more artwork in storage and figures they can fill in the holes pretty quickly.
"Collecting is definitely a passion, possibly an addiction and probably congenital," says Ogden. His own passion for art, which gave birth to what has been described as the world's most significant private collection of Southern art, began when he was a student at Louisiana State University. As Ogden, who now serves as the chair of the LSU Board of Supervisors, tells it, he had no education in art history. He was a business and economics major and president of the student body in his senior year, a campus politico and a Kappa Sigma man, but not one of those arty types.
At the time, though, he did have a girlfriend who knew a little bit more than he did about art, and she showed him an Alexander Drysdale painting titled Blue Lagoon hanging in the Taylor Clark gallery in Baton Rouge. Ogden later learned that it was a scene from Bayou St. John in New Orleans, but at the time it reminded him of his home in Lafayette, where the oak trees, laden with filmy Spanish moss, seemed to dissolve into the humid air. "It gave me a sense of place," says Ogden of this Drysdale scene.
The phrase "a sense of place" recurs frequently in Ogden's remarks about Southern art. It also figures prominently in all the published material on the museum. But back in 1966, when Ogden first felt himself in the grip of this sense of place as he stood before the Drysdale painting, he was also in the grip of a task given to him by his father, which was to find a Christmas present for his mother.
As Ogden tells it, his family home did not contain art, unless you count the paintings his mother had made, for which his father had built frames in his workshop in the shed. And yet, young Roger "Buster" Ogden decided that this Drysdale painting would be the best gift. His only problem was that after paying for tuition, books and laundry, he didn't have any money. "At the time it could have been the Mona Lisa. Besides, where would I put it? In the frat house?"
Ogden figured he could get his father to pay for it, but first he would have to trick his father into coming to see the painting -- because he'd never do it otherwise. When Ogden drove his father through Baton Rouge, he said only that he had a surprise. When he parked in front of the art gallery, Ogden's father protested, "Oh no, Buster, we don't know anything about art." Ogden had to agree with his father on that point, and felt he was losing, so he tried a new tactic.
The elder Ogden was a geologist and an independent oil operator. "He had a scientist's mind with a gambler's streak," says Ogden. "As an oil operator, you had to like gambling because seven to ten holes came up dry for every one that hit." So Ogden put it to his father this way: There were 12 paintings in the gallery, but there was just one he liked. If his father walked in there and didn't like the same one he did, they could go home. "That's one in 12 odds. Whaddaya say?" Ogden concluded his pitch. His father said OK.
They walked into the gallery, and the elder Ogden went straight to the Drysdale painting that had so haunted his son's imagination, and pointed to it. "'That's the one, right?'" Ogden recalls. "Then he said to me, 'Buster, you're really onto something.'" When his mother received her gift on Christmas day, she loved it just as much. "She was so amazed that these two oafs with no culture -- in her mind -- had bought her this beautiful work of art," says Ogden. "She was smitten with our sensitivity."
A couple of months later, Ogden got a rare phone call at the frat house from his father. After ascertaining that nothing catastrophic had happened at home, Ogden asked his father to explain the reason for the call. "That painting you talked me into buying for your mother?" Ogden's father told him. "Well, that painting has done me a lot of good, if you know what I mean."
"Don't tell me any more!" the young Ogden yelled into the phone.
His father redirected the conversation by pointing out that their wedding anniversary was coming up. "See if you can find me another painting," he instructed his son. Thus began a three-year stint of art shopping with Roger Ogden as the scout and his father as financier, which resulted in a collection of about ten works by Louisiana artists -- all chosen for that same haunting, ineffable sense of place. These ten paintings comprise the roots from which Ogden's current vast collection grew.
"So you see, the true, fundamental rationale for this collection is love," says Ogden. "And another kind of passion."
With his father's sudden death in 1969, while Ogden was in Tulane Law School, that early stage of art collecting ended. As student and then a new lawyer beginning to establish his practice, he did not have the disposable income to buy art. Gradually, as prospects improved, he and his then-wife Ann started looking into New Orleans galleries and selected a charcoal drawing by George Dureau. It cost $85, and the gallery allowed Ogden to pay for it over ten months. A little later, Ogden purchased a portrait by Ann Dalrymple, of a beautiful woman. "It reminded me of my Ann, so I got it for her as a gift," he says.
Although no longer married, Roger and Ann Ogden, who is vice-president of the Audubon Institute, enjoy a loving friendship, as do Ann Ogden and Ken Barnes, who has been Roger's life partner for 29 years. The three of them have raised Roger and Ann's son, Field, now a third-year resident in orthopedic surgery at Charity Hospital. Barnes reports that all four regularly go on family vacations together, and he was honored to stand as Field's best man at his wedding this past May. "While we are certainly not a traditional family," says Roger Ogden, "we are a happy one."
Toward the end of the 1970s, he moved from law into real estate development. Over the course of a long career in this area, Ogden's labor would yield the Wyndam Riverfront Hotel, the new Loews Hotel on Poydras street, the restoration of the Piazza d'Italia, and a $200 million portfolio in shopping centers. This expansion of fortunes made it possible for Ogden to buy more and more art -- all of it by Louisiana artists -- simply because he wanted art that reflected back to him this place that he loves. Without intending it, he was developing a significant collection of regional art. It wasn't until several museum and gallery directors pointed this out to Ogden that he realized he had begun something unique.
"I understood that this collection was no longer my and my family's joy, but had become a responsibility to steward," he says. "I felt I had a mandate to bring it to the public."
"Southern art" was a category that didn't really exist until that moment. "The American South is the last frontier of the visual arts," says Ogden, who believes that, while the South has distinguished itself on the world stage with its music, literature and cuisine, visual art has remained the property of New York, Washington, D.C. and other cold, faraway cities. Furthermore, the Southern artists who chose to stay and make their work here have had to wait a lot longer and work a lot harder for critical acceptance by the art establishment. So in collecting work by artists in the South, Ogden was creating a distinct entity that had not yet been considered, let alone studied or documented, as a grouping with its own integrity.
However, great collections are not born of love alone. It also takes a dose of entrepreneurship. Ogden says he made the shift from accidental to serious collector when he realized that the small group of paintings he had started -- with some focused intention -- could turn into something far more significant. "By nature I think in terms of how can I take this asset and leverage it to create value," he says. "That's what I do as a real estate developer."
He adds that one should never buy art for financial investment purposes. "You will likely be burned that way. The financial value of art is so difficult to predict. It's like figuring where to drill an oil well."
So in order to create something that stands as a collection, rather than an idiosyncratic assembly of beloved paintings, the collector has to practice the art of judicious selection, balancing his own taste with an awareness of other factors. Ogden educated himself in art history. He needed to know the span of a particular artist's career before he could decide if a work represented the best of what the artist had done. For example, he has not bought any of the later work of Clementine Hunter because he feels she lost her artistic center when her work became popular and dealers were pressuring her to churn out more and more saleable paintings. Only her earliest and unsigned Panorama of Baptism on Cane River is in Ogden's collection because he feels that it shows what was truly in her mind, rather than what other people were telling her to paint. He also owns two of Hunter's rare abstract works -- a style of painting that Ogden feels was her best, but that Hunter tried only briefly before abandoning because it didn't sell.
In considering a purchase, Ogden also took into account what the collection would need to acquire in order to become complete and therefore important. This consideration of a work's or the collection's importance arises again and again. "A collection has importance when you are developing a volume of work within a context," Ogden explains. "Then you are building something that is meaningful, and without a doubt the total is far greater than the sum of its parts."
In other words, a group of paintings is a collection when the works in it have a relationship that was invisible until the collector chose them and put them together. By existing in proximity to each other in a collection, the artwork can then present a visible narrative -- the story of visual art in the South, for instance. A collection is something that teaches.
Ogden says he'd never buy a painting solely because he liked it. "You can't do it in that scattershot way." And he'd never buy a painting solely because it was supposed to be "important." A prospective purchase has to speak to him aesthetically at the same time that it fits into the existing collection in a way that makes historical sense.
He will admit, however, that getting to know an artist personally affects his evaluation of the work. "Knowing and loving an artist as a human being can make their work more beautiful to me. I will see it through a Doris Day sort of rose-colored lens," he says. "Or knowing that an artist may be less than the finest human being may make me see the work in a more harsh light and be less forgiving of the faults."
An artist with whom he feels a strong connection -- through both life and art -- is Clyde Connell. She lived in northwest Louisiana and as a civil rights activist during the 1950s huddled in an Alabama church with others working in the same cause, while, on horseback, the Ku Klux Klan rode thunderous circles around the church before burning a cross on the front lawn. Ogden feels he can see Connell's courage in her artwork, such as the Bound People Series, and that's why he collects it. Ogden also points to a commissioned work by Ida Kohlmeyer, whose friendship he cherished until her death. That one will stay in his sunroom.
In the administrative offices of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, housed in the Stephen Goldring Hall, there is a digital clock with a big sign across the top that says "Time Remaining." At the moment of this writing, it stands at 14 days, 21 hours, 16 minutes, and the seconds are ticking away in a swift blur. The museum was originally planned to open in 1998. Various setbacks stemming from legal disputes over the use of a hallway in the Confederacy Museum, housed in the Memorial Hall that stands between the two wings of the Ogden Museum, have helped bring the staff to its current state of barely controlled mayhem.
Now, time is running out, and the Ogden Museum is not quite ready yet. But it's getting there. The mayhem may also in part be due to the fact that it's hard to know where Roger Ogden is at any one moment. A deployment of security guards has located him on the third floor, where he and museum director Rick Gruber, along with the curator David Houston, lean their elbows on the balcony and discuss lighting.
Ogden acknowledges that he wields a greater-than-average influence over the placement of the art he is donating. Most collectors would hand over the paintings and let the museum decide where to put them. "But these are my babies," Ogden says. "And I'm holding onto them as long as I can. So, I go down there and we hang them together."
A number of the museum's galleries have been rearranged after Ogden reviewed them. This may have slowed things down, but then a lot of things in the art realm just can't be rushed. Word comes in that Richard Johnson, chair of the University of New Orleans art department, whom Ogden had commissioned to create a work for the entrance area of the museum, has just finished the painting. Ogden and Gruber joke with each other that when the Johnson work finally gets there, they'll smell wet paint for a while.
Ogden and Gruber's attempts to finish are occasionally sidetracked by visits from trustees, and also the arrival of new works on loan that Ogden hasn't seen yet. Aside from giving his own collection, and directing its display, Ogden has also been working (or "pimping" he jokes; he calls Houston and Gruber his "fellow pimpers") to get other collectors to lend or donate work to add to his 1,200. So far the Ogden Museum collection has increased to 2,750 from these other donations with more expected. Today they are rushing to prepare the contemporary collection for the public. Ogden's 18th and 19th century collection, along with his library and catalogue of materials that support the collection, will come to the museum in about a year and half when the restored Patrick F. Taylor Library opens.
As Ogden mulls over some photos of the French Quarter -- "I'm pretty sure these are all mine" -- David Houston walks in holding a large flat package swathed in bubble wrap. There is a flurry of excitement. He leans the package against the wall in the Mississippi River and the Delta gallery where there is another bubble-wrapped package. The smaller one is a painting by Arkansas artist Carroll Cloar, on loan from the artist's widow Pat Cloar, who took it down from her dining room wall and brought it to the Ogden Museum herself. The other larger work is a famous depiction of the 1927 flood by John Stewart Curry on loan from the Morris Museum in Augusta, Ga.
When Gruber and Ogden tear off the bubble wrap and lean the Curry painting against the wall, Ogden says that this was not really his most favorite painting in the world, but he did try to buy it when it came up for auction at Sotheby's a few years ago. The reason: it depicts a moment in this region's history -- the flood that set the standard for floods -- that influenced Southern art, music, and literature for generations afterward. Ogden went so far as to call his bank to get a loan. Unbeknownst to him, Rick Gruber, who was working for the Morris Museum at the time, was bidding against him.
"They had a lot more money, so they got it. Ah, but there is sweet justice in the world," Ogden says as they unveil the painting. He lost the bidding battle, but he won the art war, for here is the Curry. The Morris Museum's owner, Billy Morris, made them promise to hang the painting on the second floor or higher because he was worried about all that water.
The idea for this gallery is to place this famous work by Curry across from the relatively less famous work by Carroll Cloar to show visitors that these contemporaries were likely aware of each other's work and creating in the same context. When David Houston unwraps the Cloar, the atmosphere in the room heightens considerably. Ogden becomes suddenly boyish in his excitement as he bends down to get a closer look. Even Pat Cloar -- who owns the painting -- has to look at it again as if she had not been seeing it in her dining room for the past 40 years.
Titled Been a Long Old Lonesome Day, the painting depicts a young African-American girl in an Arkansas landscape. She sits sideways and turns her head to look at the viewer with an almost unbearably direct gaze. Around her are the remnants of a fallen tree, and one piece of the trunk floats in a surreal defiance of gravity. In the distance, a hard, orange sun sinks into the flat-line horizon. The image has an undeniable, and yet inexplicable, impact on this small group of viewers. Perhaps it is the combination of the title, the girl's expression and the burning desolation of the colors in the distance that makes the painting so utterly Southern. Whatever it is, no one seems able to articulate why the image moves us so palpably, and so we just stand around the painting, grinning like fools, glad to be in its presence.
Ogden is nearly beside himself with joy. Earlier when Pat Cloar had brought the painting, he had whispered hurriedly, "Pat is lending the painting for now. And we hope she'll make it a gift." So he seems to have stepped into his cordial pimp's role, but it's not just some hollow act. He is genuinely happy to see Cloar's work in the museum. Apparently Ogden's passion for collecting becomes aroused both when he's buying a painting and when he's just borrowing one. And he can't stop thanking Pat Cloar for lending Been a Long Old Lonesome Day. For her part, she can't stop thanking him for helping to create a museum of Southern art to put it in. "This is the perfect place for Carroll Cloar's work," she says. "People don't come here to see Dutch and Flemish art."
True enough. Those Dutch and Flemish masters would wither to ash beneath the relentless eyes of Cloar's somber little girl and the orange sun behind her. There is no room in this museum for anyone who can't take the heat.