It began as a simple gesture when a college student gave his mom a vintage painting for her birthday. But Roger Ogden, who went on to become a big-time real estate developer, and the painting, a landscape by Louisiana impressionist Alexander Drysdale, was the first in a torrent of acquisitions that eventually became a big-time art collection. So big that even a real estate mogul would be hard pressed to find enough space to house it all. One thing led to another, including his donation of 1,200 works to the University of New Orleans Foundation, and through a mixture of vision and serendipity, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art was born.
Since it opened 10 years ago, the museum, an affiliate of the University of New Orleans and the Smithsonian Institution, has become part of the city's cultural fabric. How that happened is a tale of common sense and necessity, a survival strategy employed by a unique institution attempting to establish itself in a unique, if sometimes jaded, American city.
"When we opened the doors to the public for the first time on Oct. 2, 1999, we had a temporary, 1,000-square-foot space, and a staff of three," says museum director Richard Gruber. Since then, the Ogden has experienced a dizzying range of highs and lows. Among the high points, few surpass the August 2003 opening of Goldring Hall, the striking, 47,000-square-foot, five-story high-rise building that houses Ogden's 20th century and contemporary art exhibitions. Designed to complement the grand Victorian Romanesque Patrick F. Taylor Library building that will house the 18th and 19th century collections when it reopens sometime in 2011, Goldring Hall's understated facade conceals a spectacular yet subtle interior illuminated by gently sparkling ambient light. The flexible design of the exhibition space reflects the museum's mandate to show a variety of art created in the South as well as work by American artists originally from the South. This wide-net approach is seen in the facility's offerings to date, ranging from vintage ceramics by Biloxi potter George Ohr to a retrospective of contemporary paintings by Roger Brown, a Chicago Imagist originally from Alabama.
A notable low point occurred at the end of another August two years later when Hurricane Katrina spared the museum but crippled its host city. "We were the first (museum) to reopen," Gruber says. But perhaps more important than what the museum team did was how it did it — with an Ogden After Hours music program that brought in a crowd of 600 people. It was a comforting gesture of outreach to a traumatized city, and it set the stage for what would become a whole new series of film, literary and educational programs.
"We're trying to create a new kind of museum culture," says curator David Houston, "one that's open, inviting and engages you right from the start." It's a concept that Gruber defines as "a cultural community center" with a personal touch, and it seems to fit in nicely with the museum's unique mission as an institution with a regional focus but a national reach.