Southern Art Gains a Home

Article excerpt

A walk through the spacious galleries of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which opened here in August, takes you from the elegant landscapes and urban scenes of the Charleston Renaissance to the bold, expansive spaces in contemporary Texan art; from sedate portraits to jumbled mixed-media sculptures; and from the relative tranquility of the Old South to the tumult of World War II and the civil rights movement, which changed the South forever.

With so much ground to cover, you might wonder what ties the collection together. That's the same as asking, "What is Southern art?" says museum founder Roger Ogden. "That's the $64,000 question."

During his 30 years of collecting the 1,200 works that form the core of the museum's collection, Mr. Ogden has had time to consider the answer. Beyond the geographical definition, he says, Southern art is best defined by an interest in community, spirituality, family, and "a preoccupation with history and culture."

The most important but elusive characteristic is that the art conjures up what Ogden calls "a sense of place." Southerners are set apart by their deeply rooted love for their region's disparate vistas and moods, for the natural landscapes that range from the lush swamps of Florida to the Appalachian Mountains. The artworks show clearly what each artist loved and valued.

Although the museum seeks to define what makes Southern art distinctive, Richard Gruber, the museum's director, says, "We're saying the South is part of American art; we're not arguing that we're a province that needs to be, somehow or other, boxed in." Instead, he'd like to see Southern artists reevaluated in the larger story of American creativity.

The works are on display in Stephen Goldring Hall, which houses the museum's 20th- and 21st-century collection in an angular new building of sandstone and glass. Next fall a second wing is scheduled to open. It will exhibit the museum's 18th- and 19th- century collection in a brooding, neo-Romanesque library built in 1889. Together, the buildings illustrate the Ogden's mission of celebrating the South's history while embracing its future.

The juxtaposition of old and new architectural styles in the Ogden's two buildings is made even more interesting by what's sandwiched between them: the unaffiliated Confederate Museum.

After a lengthy court battle over the ownership of the Confederate building, it has been allowed to stay. A tunnel will be constructed below the Confederate hall to connect the Ogden's wings.

The Ogden's inaugural exhibition is titled "The Story of the South." As you walk through galleries devoted to states, decades, and styles, previously underestimated regional artists are presented and connections between artists and places are revealed.

"In the '50s, '60s, and even in the '70s often the art world talked about art in a more formal sense," says Mr. Gruber. "A painting hung on a wall spoke for itself, and you didn't talk about anything beyond that. We think it's very difficult to talk about Southern art without talking about context."

He cites Clementine Hunter, one of the luminaries of folk art, as an example of an artist whose work can't be separated from the environment where it was created. Hunter was born on a Louisiana plantation where her grandparents had been slaves, and she began painting on window shades and cardboard boxes when she was in her 50s. …