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His Legacy Is a Work of Art

The Ogden Museum is a testament to its namesake, a gay man who has become a pillar of New Orleans society just by being himself.

November 15, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — 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."

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