His Legacy Is a Work of Art

Times Staff Writer

Roger Houston Ogden once dreamed of being governor of Louisiana. Instead, the wealthy developer built his legacy behind the ornate doors of his white-columned, upper Audubon district mansion, where he amassed one of the largest collections of Southern art in the world.

When city leaders cut the ribbon in August at the multitiered $21-million Ogden Museum of Southern Art on Camp Street, Ogden's ambition to publicly serve his native South was realized.

But the stories behind vast personal art collections such as Ogden's are about much more than art.

At home a few hours after the opening, a celebratory Ogden pointed to his formal garden, where the midday sun illuminated a shimmering new Lin Emery aluminum sculpture. His partner, Ken Barnes, had asked him to buy the piece by the noted American sculptor to mark the 29th anniversary of the night they met.

"I said, 'This is going to have to be the 29th and 30th,' " Ogden recalled, in his dry Southern drawl. When Ogden's ex-wife saw the sculpture, she reminded Ogden that their wedding anniversary -- which they continue to celebrate -- was approaching.

"I said, 'Goodness. Couldn't I have picked a simpler lifestyle?' " Ogden sighed with mock exasperation. "And they gang up on me. The dog used to team with me -- until he died."

The museum that bears Ogden's name has drawn international attention to this self-styled New Orleans Medici -- a consummate Southern gentleman who felt his unconventional life stood in the way of his political aspirations.

Yet in the dense social world of New Orleans, where Mardi Gras and gay revelry at the annual Southern Decadence parade overlay a deeply conservative elite, Ogden's passion for art has cemented his status as an indisputable pillar of society.

He and Barnes dine with the governor and his wife. Ogden loans paintings to the governor's mansion. And now, Ogden, his partner, his ex-wife and his son are the first family behind the crown jewel in New Orleans' efforts to remake itself into a Southern arts destination: a museum that is a showcase for artists who are Southern-born or deal with Southern themes.

"He got to have his cake and eat it too. My hat is off to him," said Arthur Roger, owner of the gallery that sold Ogden such contemporary works as the sculpture by Emery.

Ogden loves to talk art. He is an attentive host and ardent storyteller who treats guests to his 10,000-square-foot Georgian mansion -- close enough to the Mississippi to hear the boats go by -- as if they were the most fascinating people on Earth. "It is such a pleasure," Ogden tells one visitor, drawing out the word like a long cool drink, "to meet someone who understands so much about art."

Lean and fit in crisp khakis and a starched blue oxford shirt, the gray-haired Ogden, 57, sits down on an old-fashioned leather sofa in his baronial parlor to describe how he tracked a painting for years, and how his heart began to race ("I nearly jumped out of my shoes!") when it came on the market. His paintings, hung in rows, reflect in the gilt mirror above the room's white marble fireplace.

Above an antique chest is Joseph Rusling Meeker's "Bayou Plaquemines," with its mountains of red-tinged clouds. It is flanked by 19th- and 20th-century Southern landscapes, a genre whose romantic pastorals show the deep ties to the land in the agrarian South but omit any hint of the tensions of Reconstruction and the violence of Jim Crow. The best examples are starting to creep higher than $200,000, according to recent auction sales at Sotheby's -- a rise experts say reflects the growing interest in regional art that has already buoyed the prices of California plein-air landscapes.

Ogden runs his hand over Arts and Crafts ceramics figured with the smoky blue irises, the palmettos and pale yellow moons of the Newcomb school. On his coffee table are Niloak Pottery vases, whose swirling bands of rust, ochre, sienna brown and black are derived from minerals and natural pigments embedded in the clay of the Ozark foothills.

He halts in his study before a black marble fireplace adorned with Ionic columns and an etched stork playing a flute serenade to a cherub. Above the mantle is an 1844 painting of Louise Robb and her three daughters. Her husband, James Robb, was an Ohio-born entrepreneur who founded New Orleans' gas and electric company and became an art collector.

Robb lived, Ogden said, "a true-life 'Gone With the Wind,' " losing his beloved wife and a daughter to yellow fever, going bankrupt and selling off his art, marrying another daughter to Spanish royalty and recouping his fortune with a utilities concession from Spanish Queen Isabella in the colony of Cuba. To Ogden, Robb's life "is almost a Scarlett O'Hara story in and of itself."

This painting speaks to Ogden. "There are some parallels," he said thoughtfully, "between his life and my life."

Like Robb, Ogden is a relative New Orleans newcomer, the son of a Boston-born geologist and a fiery Dallas belle. Their marriage was, Ogden says, "one of the great love affairs I have witnessed in my lifetime."

As a sophomore at Louisiana State University, Ogden accompanied a girlfriend -- just to humor her -- to a Baton Rouge art gallery. There he found himself captivated by a painting by Alexander John Drysdale, an early 20th-century New Orleans artist. A classic bayou scene with live oaks and Spanish moss, it reminded Ogden of his boyhood in Lafayette, La.

"It just struck me," he said. "It was like a magnet. Today, I would say it conveyed a sense of place."

At $500, it was more than he could afford. So he persuaded his father to buy it for his mother.

At the time, Ogden was fueled by quite different ambitions. He became president of his freshman class and then of the student body. He was an intern for Sen. Russell B. Long, son of storied Louisiana populist Gov. Huey P. Long. Ogden was a page at the 1964 Republican National Convention, and graduated from Tulane Law School with the highest honors.

He married his college sweetheart, Ann Wait, in 1970, and began practicing law. The couple soon had a son, Field, now 30 and an orthopedic surgery resident at Charity Hospital.

Field was 18 months old when Ogden met a horse trainer, Ken Barnes, through a mutual friend who invited him for a drink at a gay bar in Houston in 1974. Barnes, then 23, was living in Los Angeles, riding the horses of the actor Tab Hunter.

"Roger had only been in a gay bar one other time, and he was drinking a six-pack of beer he was so nervous," Barnes recalled.

"We just immediately hit it off," Ogden said, "and the first person I wanted him to meet was Ann."

At the time, Ogden had managed to be accepted into one of the Mardi Gras krewes that act as gatekeepers to the high-society world of debutante balls. To belong, customarily, one's ancestors have to "be here when Jefferson bought [Louisiana]," joked Ann Wait Ogden. "I felt like it was opening up to us."

Invitations to Mardi Gras balls began arriving.

The Ogdens abandoned those social ambitions when he and Barnes got together, and Ogden ended his seven-year marriage. He also abandoned his dream of a political career.

"Once he decided he didn't want to live his life as a secret, he realized that wasn't going to happen," Barnes said. "It's whether you can go to sleep at night peacefully that's important."

Instead, Ogden focused his energies on building, with three partners, a $250-million real estate empire, then rebuilding it when the bottom dropped out of the Louisiana real estate market in the mid-1980s.

He immersed himself in civic involvements, culminating in his ascension, two years ago, to the chairmanship of the Louisiana State University board of supervisors.

And he turned to art. Someone told him a collection is more significant if it has a theme. Ogden decided on Southern art.

Barnes pitched in, scouting the galleries, especially after Ogden -- who feared his increasing visibility was driving up prices -- lowered his profile in auction purchases.

"Ken has been my full partner, not only in life, but in building the collection," Ogden said. "This collection would not exist without Ken."

"But it's definitely your eye," Barnes countered. "The difference is, it's a passion for you. And it's not for me."

Today, the Ogden collection is valued at as much as $30 million. Much of it is still at home, awaiting two new museum wings, one for 18th- and 19th-century art. Another wing will house the paintings of a self-taught African American artist, Clementine Hunter, who was born in 1886 or 1887 on the Hidden Hill cotton plantation that was said to have inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and who began painting in 1940.

Unlike the Morris Museum of Art, the first significant museum for art of the South when it opened in Augusta, Ga., in 1992, the Ogden Museum has numerous examples of contemporary and decorative art, as well as deep sculpture and photography collections.

"He has some very impressive stuff" -- as well as an enviable location in a city visited by 12 million or 13 million people a year, said Kevin Grogan, the director of the Morris. "New Orleans is one of those places where cultures meet and merge. It's going to get a high level of exposure."

Gallery owner Roger hopes the Ogden Museum will create a more sophisticated, forward-minded approach to art collecting among well-to-do New Orleans families.

"I used to always say that most of the big families here inherit their art collection rather than select it themselves," Roger said. "I think that's changing. It used to be they needed East Coast validation. I could be showing them the same work and they would buy it in New York for that cachet."

The Ogden Museum is something of a collective triumph for a family that still presents a united front. A few weeks before the opening, Barnes served as best man at Field's wedding. Ann Wait Ogden frequently accompanies the others on vacations.

The gay community, Roger said, was gratified when Ogden aired his relationship with Barnes in an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune a few days before the opening.

"The opening of the museum has been a big change for him, opening up this very private part of his life," Roger said. "It was my sort of feeling that he needed to be more open, because Roger has so much credibility."

The new museum also unveiled a board that reflects Ogden's reach within the community. There are prominent African Americans: a judge, an art collector, the president of a utility company whose forerunner was founded by Ogden's historic alter ego, James Robb. There are professional and entrepreneurial women -- a doctor, a restaurateur -- as well as a Jewish business leader and a hip thirtysomething boutique hotelier. There is a parade of society stalwarts: former queens of the krewes of Rex and Comus, a former king of Mardi Gras.

Among the city's old families, Ogden's lifestyle "is less and less an issue," said Joe Henican, 55, a socially prominent businessman who belongs to Rex and is a grandson of a Mardi Gras king.

"I think there's much more openness to that, especially with the younger generation," Henican said, noting that Ogden's success and civic contributions have won him wide respect. "New Orleans is full of contradictions. It's a lot more than Mardi Gras parades and voodoo."

Ogden is not interested in becoming a symbol of his personal life -- "I've always lived my life honestly, but I don't carry banners about it" -- but hopes to distinguish himself through his cultural legacy.

"I'm interested in the difference [the museum] will make in artists' lives," Ogden said.

One of his favorite New Orleans artists, Willie Birch, 61, is among those who are asking his private collectors to will his work to the Ogden.

Birch returned to New Orleans in 1994 after 20 years in New York. Today, his paintings are suffused with his explorations of the African legacy in New Orleans music and religion. The threads of his journey home are woven into a life-size papier-mache sculpture, "Going South," that was prominently displayed at the Ogden opening. The piece shows a girl clutching a teddy bear and a doll, sitting on a pile of blue suitcases that refer to the blues allusions in the work of the late Romare Bearden.

"I love that piece," Ogden said. "It speaks to the reverse migration of African Americans, back to the South. It conveys such a sense of place."

So did the opening of the museum on Camp Street.

The ribbon-cutting took place on a Saturday morning so steamy that the St. Augustine High School marching band played a few funk tunes and fizzled out in the heat. A dapper Ogden took the podium, referring deferentially to "Ann" several times, as his ex-wife mingled with Field Ogden and Barnes.

"As an observer, it's been so terrific to me to see someone I care about have their dream come true," Ann Wait Ogden said. "How often does that happen in life?"

At the end, the Ogden family drove up St. Charles Avenue, past live oaks festooned with Mardi Gras beads that, from a distance, resemble Spanish moss. Then the first family of the New Orleans art scene lunched together at a venerable local institution, Commander's Palace, that is the customary setting for the celebration of Ogden family values.

"Roger's one of my best friends, and Ken's the other one," Ann Wait Ogden mused. "And that's a Southern twist to the story that has always struck me as very ironic."

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