The concept of an Ohr Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi began with snaring Frank Gehry as its architect in 1999. It took four years to design, partly because there was little agreement early on as to what the institution would be. Finally Jeremiah O’Keefe donated his African American arts collection and was a generous contributor to the capital fund. It became the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum and the two parts, culturally unrelated, were co-joined. In retrospect a national ceramics museum, my suggestion from day one, might have made more sense (and it still does).
The city donated a prime four acre piece of seafront land to the project. It was a mixed blessing because this land had protected live oak trees and the final design had to be a campus of buildings organized (Gehry calls it “dancing”) between the trees. The first half million dollars was spent surveying the roots structure of the oaks.
Ground was broken in 2004 and the construction began. Phase one ended dramatically the next year on August 29 when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. A huge floating hotel and casino (sin in this state pre-Katrina was permissible on water but not on land) lost it moorings, traveled several miles downwind and was unceremoniously dumped directly on top of the museum, flattening most of the construction and four pods of the Ohr Museum itself.
Ironically, it was the same hotel that Gehry stayed in on his visits. The Read House, home of Mississippi’s first freed slave, was part of the campus and was totally destroyed. It is now rebuilt. (See photographs below.)
The good news was that just before the disaster a museum trustee had insisted on comprehensive insurance. The bad news was that the momentum for the museum’s completion was halted and ever since it has struggled to keep the project moving forward. The longer it took, the more this waned.
While it was flush with rebuilding funds, thanks to the insurance, it struggled to pay operating costs and for a while last year, when income dried up completely, it seemed the museum had reached the end of the road.
Seven months ago the museum hired a new director, Kevin O’Brien, a museum veteran having run several art universities and other museums. On July 12 (George Ohr’s birthday), after 18 years in gestation, the full campus (minus the interiors of three pods) opens to the public. What follows is an interview with O’Brien.
Lets begin with why? Why did you commit to a project as problematic as this one? You could hardly have picked a tougher assignment.
Yes, it was daunting. A friend of mine, a museum director from California, visited, looked the project over, turned to me in shock and said, “Tell me, Kevin, have you ever run a museum before?”
But I looked at this and thought, we have two great American masters here, Gehry the architect and George E. Ohr the potter. This needs to be celebrated and in years it will become iconic. And I have a passion for rebuilding. My mother and I fixed old English motor cars when I was young, mainly TR3’s. I suppose this appealed to the mechanic, the restorer and lover of classics in me.
What did you identify as the major problem?
That this has been a construction site for 15 years. My first question was, “Where is the cultural product”? There was virtually none. How can you get your community behind you when there has been no consistent programming? Everyone in Biloxi knows the “strange” building, very few have visited it or even know what we are.
Locals are essential to have any vitality in the community but isn’t a museum only going to survive with a national support base?
Absolutely. And that is another hurdle: The Ohr collectors were behind us when this began but over the years that backing dwindled and we have to regain their trust and support.
Without being too tough, my experience as an Ohr scholar watching the museum present itself to the world and also in speaking to Ohr’s collectors, is that the tone has been embarrassingly hokey, Ohr as a hayseed. I know he is known as the “Mad Potter” but the museum has punned him to death. This has turned off a lot of people. But the invitation for your latest event, the current benefit, was beautifully designed and hit just the right note between Ohr’s eccentricity and linking the local Mardi Gras tradition.
Thank you. Calling past efforts hokey is kind. Too much has been made about Ohr’s antics and too little said about his art. It’s like launching a Vincent van Gogh museum and only talking about his severed ear. But at the same time that ear is a hook that brings in visitors. So Ohr’s clowning, in balance, has marketing appeal but now we want to amp up the scholarship. Branding is a delicate issue. We need national support but we are not New York and must respect our local audience and not alienate them.
Does July 14 signal the end of construction? I noticed that some of the metal walls had problems, dents, warped panels, irregular seams and other signs of poor craft.
Yes, we have some construction issues that we are resolving. When the insurance fund was fat, oversight was not all that it should have been.
The warped panels and irregular seams on the pods were a result of damage from a series of storms to the pod’s substructure. Many people thought that the exposed, slightly damaged understructure of the pods was the final product. It was not. Three months ago the substructure was repaired, and a black vapor barrier was then applied to the pod surfaces. In the past two months, the final stainless steel scales were affixed to the pods, resulting in a final finish of excellent quality.
There remain some issues with the construction of the plaza, but those are being sorted out.
Why is only one pod opening on July 12?
We had money for structures and not the interiors designed by the late David Whitney. And they are costly. We managed to have one completed but we need to find another $3-4 million to finish the other three. But finding that money is what I was hired for. I am up for the challenge. Also, when the full complex opens and our city, state and country sees what a treasure Gehry has created, fund raising will get a little easier than it has been in the past.
For what it’s worth, CFile is on your side and will be actively following and supporting your program. Ohr is a world class artist and it’s time for the ceramics world to roll out its support.
Above image: The Knight Gallery (under construction) consists of four sculptural volumes clad in stainless steel panels and connected by a central glass-enclosed gallery. The area provides 2,900 square feet of exhibition space devoted to the display of pottery created by George Ohr in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.