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
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