Showcasing the diversity of the south

This article is part of our latest special section on museums, dedicated to new artists, new audiences and new perspectives on exhibitions.


NEW ORLEANS – Author’s work at a recent exhibition in Ogden Museum of Southern Art This is a photograph of a mobile phone showing a framed image of a pre-war mansion on the screen.

It’s a photo within a photo. But what makes it attractive is that the iPhone pictured is clearly in the hand of a black man, Ramell Ross.

An Oscar-nominated filmmaker, artist and photographer, Mr. Ross often documents the people and land of Hale County, Alabama.

For 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 people. By showing this particular image, Mr. Ross and the Ogden curators are demonstrating their determination to show this place in a new way.

Ogden, in a tower of glass and steel Warehouse/Arts Quarter New Orleans is one of the few museums dedicated exclusively to the art of the American South. With over 74,000 square feet of exhibition and event space, this is the largest of them all.

Showcasing the diversity of the contemporary South is central to Ogden’s mission. “The South is very diverse,” said Bradley Sumrall, 50, curator of the collection. “It’s really not Margaret Mitchell’s place anymore. It exists, of course. But that’s an outdated stereotype.”

Early this spring, Ogden’s staff shattered stereotypes about the South with a jazz one-man show by a Cuban-American modernist. Luis Cruz Asaseta.

On another floor, there was a new gallery with sculptures by Lonnie Holly with an African accent. Further down the corridor was a room dedicated to the giant of American figurative painting, Benny Andrews. Mr. Andrews, the son of sharecroppers from Georgia, was an early supporter of Ogden and, until his death in 2006, a confidant. Ogden owns over 200 copies of his work.

Diversity and inclusiveness have become watchwords in many museums in the South in recent years, especially since the Summer 2020 Black Lives Matter event. The leaders of many Southern institutions are now trying to overcome what is considered a discriminatory past by expanding their presentations and trying to appeal to an underrepresented audience.

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 curators, Mr. Sumrall and Richard McCabe, considerable freedom in program design.

Their courage won the admiration of their peers. Angie Dodson, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama, said she is “a huge fan”.

“They are the authoritative voice of southern art and they put on these extraordinary exhibitions, large and intimate.”

Ms. Dodson has particularly fond memories of Alabama photographer and artist William Christenberry’s 2019 retrospective. “It was beautiful and deep,” she said. “It still haunts. They speak with an authentic voice and talk about important things.”

The idea for a museum in New Orleans – to make it both specifically southern and diverse – came from Roger Houston Ogden, a real estate developer.

Mr Ogden, now 75, has been collecting art since he was in college in the 1960s. Over the decades, he amassed what is probably the most significant private collection of Southern art in the country.

“I just fell in love with collecting,” he said. “I bought with my eyes – I saw what great art is. I was looking into uncharted territory, which meant that I often bought from unrecognized women and black artists.”

Mr. Ogden’s collection was extensive. And huge. It documents almost every aspect of Southern art, from the colonial period to the present day. According to him, by the 1990s he had at least 1,000 paintings, sculptures and photographs.

Among his treasures was a room-sized work, actually a fresco, by abstract expressionist Ida Kohlmeyer; vivid scenes from Clementine Hunter, who spent her whole life on the plantation; drapery by Sam Gilliam and work by Julian Onderdonk, a Texan landscape painter known for his blue-hat fields. Rolled-up canvas sheets lay under the beds; the cupboards were full of vases by Sophie Newcomb and pottery by George Or.

“The collection,” he recalled, “became more than one person or family should own. People who understood art said that it should be in the public domain.”

It was then that Mr. Ogden began to think about the museum. He intended to use the collection to transform what he considered the unfinished history of American art. He believed that the art world, headquartered in New York, had long since excluded Southern expressions from the national canon, classifying much of it as mere regionalism. According to him, he hoped that his museum would make adjustments.

But how can one person, even a very rich one, organize a museum startup?

Mr. Ogden began by partnering with the University of New Orleans, where the school’s foundation helped him secure a building site. Mike Foster, then governor of Louisiana, arranged a $3.5 million special appropriation for the building fund. Another $2.2 million was provided by the family of New Orleans philanthropist William Goldring.

Mr. Ogden presented 602 works of art. The treasure house included masterpieces by Linda Benglis, Robert Rauschenberg, Jacqueline Humphreys, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Thornton Dial, Purvis Young and Minnie Evans.

Today, the permanent collection includes over 4,000 works of art. They are all Southerners, or their subject is the South.

“We are a young museum that people are willing to donate to,” said William Pittman Andrews, 51, the museum’s executive director since 2012. “Everything we’ve purchased is in the spirit of Roger’s donation, which means Southern is the finest example of the artist’s work.”

When Ogden opened in the summer of 2003, employees had not yet fully defined its purpose. This museum could be a science center, but what else?

The answer will come through trial and error, and with Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans nearly two years after the museum opened.

Fortunately, the Ogden building was relatively undamaged. It reopened eight weeks later and served as an unofficial community center for a time. People went there on Thursday nights for jazz and healing. The concerts created an unexpected bond between the people of New Orleans and the Ogden staff. They also provided a roadmap for the museum.

Community engagement has always been high on Ogden’s agenda, but since Katrina, it has become central. Exhibiting artists were encouraged to give lessons and demonstrations. Local authors were invited to sell in the gift shop.

Art competitions have been launched, including a special competition for talent from historically black colleges. As well as new types of programs that appeal to the many ethnic groups living in south Louisiana. There was a show about the history of bounce music, a style of New Orleans hip-hop. Another focused on New Orleans graffiti.

That outreach was at the heart of Ogden’s mission was recently learned by Christian Dinh, a 29-year-old ceramist from Tulane.

Two years ago, when biased attacks on Asian Americans hit the news, Mr. Sumrall approached Mr. Dean with an idea. Can he put together an exhibition illustrating the contributions of Vietnamese Americans to the region? Although Vietnamese immigrants are one of the largest ethnic groups in southern Louisiana, their influence has rarely been acknowledged.

Mr. Ding, the son of immigrants, organized a show called Nail Salon. The exhibition consisted of 11 porcelain sculptures that told the story of Vietnamese American women through symbols taken from the nail salons where they worked. “The nail salon was a beacon,” Mr. Dean said. “I wanted to show how women have led their community to success through them.”

Mr. Dinh’s exhibit closed in March, but while it was running, many Vietnamese immigrants visited 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 they were amazed that a Vietnamese artist was being shown by a museum in New Orleans.”

“A museum must be flexible to respond to the needs of the society in which we live,” said Mr. Andrews, Executive Director. “In this case, we were able to do it.”