On Gulf Coast, a ceramics museum that’s unafraid of hurricanes
On Saturday afternoon, architect Frank Gehry’s latest creation — a characteristically lyrical cluster of crimped and undulating buildings — opened to the public here as the new home of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.
Like nearly every recent Gehry project, it is likely to become an instant landmark. The question is whether it will be an enduring one. The buildings front a stretch of Gulf of Mexico coastline that is a notorious bull’s-eye for hurricanes.
The homes that once stood on the four-acre museum site were destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969, and the lot sat vacant for decades. In 2005, Katrina strafed and battered Gehry’s partially completed structures, knocking them out of commission just months before their scheduled grand opening. One building was flattened by a giant gambling barge swept ashore with the 28-foot storm surge.
Locals on the museum board decided to rebuild, undeterred that it will house some of the most famously delicate ceramics in recent art history — the work of George E. Ohr (1857-1918), the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi.”
They reasoned that some of the buildings were salvageable. And they wanted to keep the museum along coast-hugging U.S. Highway 90, home to the hulking casinos that returned in force post-Katrina.
But the decision was also part of a broader understanding in Biloxi that buildings — even Frank Gehry buildings — must go up again, in spite of the untamable natural force that threatens to dash them like teacups.
“You just can’t live thinking that a hurricane like Katrina is going to happen every year,” board member James Crowell said. “This city’s been here since 1699. It’s seen a lot of storms, and it has always come back.”
Those realities have forced the staff of the small museum to become expert observers of ocean weather systems. Executive director Denny Mecham said the museum’s insurance company insisted that the art be moved at least 25 miles from the coast in the event of a hurricane.
Each piece of pottery has been fitted with a custom-cut foam packing mold. Boxes and crates stand at the ready, in storage a few miles away, for Mecham’s signal to haul the collection out of harm’s way.
Borrowing other artworks for temporary shows can be tricky. Some lenders are wary about sending their work to Biloxi during hurricane season, which lasts from June 1 to Nov. 30.
“One of our jobs,” Mecham said, “is to reassure them that every precaution is in place.”
Mecham, 65, came to the Ohr project two years ago after managing the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove, N.C. — which, despite its name, is hundreds of miles from the beach. She is confident she can protect the art. She also notes that Gehry’s buildings, with their swooping brushed-steel shapes, have been rigorously wind-tested and engineered.
But like many Mississippians, she has been forced to ponder the vexing questions that living on the Gulf Coast poses about the ephemeral and the permanent.
“Museums, like any art form, are essentially an idea,” Mecham posited last week, as she showed off Gehry’s five strange little buildings, three of which were readied for Saturday’s opening. “And an idea doesn’t die.”
For locals, the opening comes at a crucial time. Though gambling buoyed Biloxi’s economy through the storm’s aftermath, the sagging national economy has taken its toll: Developers of the Margaritaville casino recently ran out of money, and the metal bones of a half-built casino loom over the coastline like another Katrina victim.
However, Biloxi, which had a pre-storm population of 50,600, now has a Gehry — just like Los Angeles and Seattle and Bilbao, Spain. It is expected to draw 100,000 visitors yearly.
“What other city around here can say that?” city spokesman Vincent Creel said.
The museum also serves to cement Biloxi’s connection to Ohr, one of its few famous native sons. During his life, the eccentric potter achieved some national notoriety for both his art and his carny-style self-promotional gimmicks.
But in part because he was wary of selling his pieces individually, he lapsed into obscurity after his death in 1918. Thousands of his works languished in a family warehouse until they were discovered in 1968 by James Carpenter, a New Jersey antiques dealer.
When Carpenter reintroduced them to the art world, critics, collectors and artists were floored: Ohr’s most ambitious pieces — also lyrically crimped and undulating, and made with highly malleable clay from the nearby Tchoutacabouffa River — prefigured a number of modern art movements. Critic John Coplans called him “a pre-Dada Dadaist and a pre-Surrealism Surrealist.”
The impact was felt as far as Southern California. Gehry, who designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, has called Ohr’s pottery “genius work, which has been an inspiration to me for many years.”
Biloxi’s Ohr museum has been around since the early 1990s, though in much humbler settings. For years, the collection, which today stands at about 100 permanent pieces and 350 others on long-term loan, was housed in a city library building — on the second floor, where it was spared from Katrina’s floodwaters.
After the storm, not everyone agreed that the museum should be rebuilt on the coast. Among those most concerned was Jerry O’Keefe, a former Biloxi mayor whose family has donated about $2 million to the project in honor of his late wife, the museum’s other namesake.
O’Keefe, 87, rebuilt his own devastated house just down the road, but he feared that donors would reject the idea of rebuilding the museum by the water. He advised the board to move the project inland. “But they beat me down like a wet dog,” he said Wednesday.
O’Keefe had been instrumental in raising the $15 million in public and private funds it took to get the project built before Katrina. After the storm, the cost of labor and materials soared, but O’Keefe and others eventually managed to raise the $35 million it took to rebuild. The latest grant of $3 million, announced Thursday, came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Since Katrina, there have been some modifications to the original building plan. FEMA forced one gallery to be raised by about two feet.
Joey Crain, one of the local architects assisting on the project, is optimistic about the site’s chances. For one, the state law that once forced casinos to float in the water was repealed after Katrina.
Crain also said he didn’t expect another storm of such magnitude in his lifetime — an idea that many here passionately dispute.
Still, he said, “If you build something worthy, they will always repair it.”
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