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Coast museums rebounding, rebuilding, moving forward

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST –The Coast’s museums are treasures that reflect the area’s art, culture, history, natural beauty and sense of place. Although the diverse group was walloped by Katrina, some are now open and others are rebuilding. Each is finding creative ways to keep their special niche with tourists and residents.

Damage was not bad at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs and the collection faired well. “It’s definitely a challenge but we’re open and we’re committed to remaining open,” said museum director Gayle Petty-Johnson. “The board and staff recognized the importance of the museum to downtown Ocean Springs and to tourism. We’ve rehired 75% of the staff and the volunteers are coming back.”

There was extensive damage to a cottage across the street that is used for educational programs, but repairs were made and the summer arts programs were able to carry on. Now, after school art classes and school tours are being held there. Petty-Johnson gave kudos to Wachovia and Chevron for grants that make these programs possible.

A large portion of the museum’s linoleum blocks that were stored off site were damaged, too. A conservator is restoring the blocks and Petty-Johnson estimates the restoration will take two years. These blocks are used to make the huge Walter Anderson prints and the alphabet prints that are so popular.

The most exciting news is the Shearwater Masterpieces exhibit on display in three galleries until September 17.

“This is a spectacular exhibit and some of the finest examples of pottery, drawings and water colors,” the director said. “These pieces are from a private collection and this is the first time many of them have been shown to the public.”

The noteworthy pieces are from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Christopher Hogan of Gulfport, who have nearly 400 pieces of art. The Hogans’ home was destroyed by Katrina, but the works of art were stored in sealed containers and escaped the hurricane’s wrath. The collection has been put in the care of the museum for 10 years and Petty-Johnson hopes the exhibit will travel to other museums.

Another outstanding exhibit that will be there until the end of October is Katrina Images, photographs by Sun Herald photographers that Petty-Johnson describes as “dramatic.” The images are mostly of people and some have never been published.

“We’re hoping the economy and tourists will come back. We’re rebounding and things are getting better,” she said. “Operating income is our big hurdle because we’re paying for things insurance did not cover.”

She added that the museum is thinking differently about what it exhibits now as it tries to help everyone get back on their feet. “We need a critical mass of museums for cultural tourism visitors to come here,” she said.

In that spirit of cooperation, the Walter Anderson Museum will exhibit a collection from the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi. “It’s so nice of them to do that,” said Marjie Gowdy, executive director of the Ohr-O’Keefe. “It will open November 3 for the Peter Anderson Festival in downtown Ocean Springs.”

The Biloxi museum was hit hard at its location in the Biloxi Public Library building, and at its building site on U.S. 90 where five buildings designed by renowned architect Frank Geary were to be constructed. The separate galleries were designed to spare the large oak trees on the property. Two were more than half complete and another was coming out of the ground.

“A casino barge destroyed some buildings on the campus. Engineers say what’s left is okay, but we’re still waiting on the wind-versus-water issue to be resolved. Hopefully, it will be this fall,” Gowdy said. “The city-owned library building had to be shut down and is non functional at this time.”

But most importantly, nothing was lost in the collections. Everything is secure at an undisclosed location in North Mississippi. Gowdy says the museum will mount a national traveling exhibit in 2007 and there’s a lot of excitement about that.

In the meantime, George Ohr Rising: Gulf States Exhibition runs through September 25 in the Fine Arts Galleries of the Jefferson Davis Campus of Gulf Coast Community College. The exhibition features 113 works by 86 artists.

“We will definitely mount a full schedule of exhibits. We’re looking for venues on the Coast,” Gowdy said. “People seem hungry for art. They want to see it and they want to purchase it for their homes as their lives return to normal.”

She said the museum’s board has daily discussions about rebuilding and will determine a timetable. The staff is small but efficient and by Thanksgiving will move their offices from the mobile home they now occupy to the historic Creel House, a 1905 Biloxi cottage donated by Key Largo Holdings, the Historic Preservation Task Force and the Imperial Palace Casino. The cottage is located just north of the museum’s construction site.

The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, the state’s only children’s museum, received considerable damage to the first floor of its Gulfport facility. Repairs have been made and both levels of this colorful, hands-on museum are now open along with the outdoor areas and tree houses. Families are encouraged to come on Fridays when no admission is charged from 5 to 8 p.m.

The Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum’s facility on Point Cadet in Biloxi was completely destroyed. The museum’s two beautiful schooners were moved to a safe location before the storm came ashore. In October of last year, they were back on the water taking people sailing.

“A lot of people wanted to be on the water and we were generating some income,” said executive director Robin Krohn David.

The schooners have a new home, a pier on U.S. 90 that was a month away from completion when Katrina hit. The 750-foot pier offers fishing, boat dockage and pavilions for private parties, too. These facilities, along with the schooners, can operate all year and be a source of income while the museum rebuilds. The museum also had Sea Camp for 500 children at its old site this summer.

About 15% of the museum’s artifacts were saved and stored and others are being donated every day. A real jewel is the 1956 14-foot Higgins runabout boat that was donated by a New Orleans resident.

“I didn’t even have to see it,” David said. “It was designed by Biloxi artist Joe Moran before he gave up boat building to become an artist.”

A crew from the museum traveled more than 3,000 miles to Hull, Mass., to bring back a donated 1957 Biloxi cat boat, sometimes called a fat boat. “It was very much worth our effort. It’s in great shape and has a 22-foot mast,” David said. “I knew one was on the East Coast and I got an e-mail asking if we would like to have it. We can’t pass up these boats.”

She says the museum is also looking at a 50-foot lugger and will call for major artifacts donations later, hoping residents still have items used in Biloxi’s long involvement with the seafood industry.

“It’s amazing the calls we’re already getting,” she added. “I just hope there are still some things out there.”

The museum’s board hopes to build a new facility on city-owned property across U.S. 90 from the schooner pier. “We’re getting major funding in place to rebuild and we feel really good about it,” David said. “We just don’t want another hurricane.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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