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Excitement builds

Five buildings expected to open in November

Five of the buildings on the new campus of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art on Highway 90 in Biloxi are becoming a reality and will open to the public Nov. 8.  Dedicated to George Ohr, the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter,” it will be America’s first museum devoted to a single potter.

Dedicated to George Ohr (left), the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter,” the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art on Highway 90 in Biloxi will be America’s first museum devoted to a single potter.

Dedicated to George Ohr (left), the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter,” the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art on Highway 90 in Biloxi will be America’s first museum devoted to a single potter.

The new museum was originally scheduled to open in Jan. 2006; all of the buildings were only eleven months away from completion when Hurricane Katrina struck. “Much of the new construction was severely damaged by the storm and a casino barge was pushed on top of the cultural center, which housed the museum at the time,” said Denny Mecham, the museum’s executive director. “Five years later, the museum is back and better than ever with world renowned architect Frank Gehry designing five of the buildings in the complex.”

Gehry received the 2008 Chicago Athenaeum American Architecture Award for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum design. In April 2008, Time magazine’s “Styles and Design 100” issue named the museum “Pods” as one of the top five architectural designs in the world. He is most known for his design of the new Guggenheim Museums in Bilbao, Spain, and Abu Dhabi. Among his other notable designs are the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and a concert hall in Miami Beach for the New World Symphony.

On the Ohr-O’Keefe campus, the eye-catching Pods are made of stainless steel and look like large eggs. Four in total, they are connected by a glass-enclosed gallery and the twisting shapes are made to represent Ohr’s famous pottery forms.

“Gehry has designed five buildings for the new museum and has cited Ohr’s work as an inspiration. He even owns an Ohr pot,” Mechem said. “Gehry’s inclusion would probably have made sense to Ohr, just as it did to Gehry who has been quoted as saying that he respects and loves Ohr pottery.”

The Pods and the Center for Ceramics will still be under construction when the other buildings open in November. Julie Gustafson, the museum’s development manager, says these two buildings are scheduled to open in early 2011.

The museum buildings opening in November include the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center, Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center, Beau Rivage Casino Gallery, Star Gallery and IP Casino Exhibitions Gallery. Each will have exhibitions by notable artists, including Andy Warhol.

Prior to 2005, the George Ohr Arts and Cultural Center was housed in a section of the Biloxi Public Library, which was established in 1994 by a small group of community leaders to honor the hometown potter. Originally, this museum had only about 30 Ohr pots with many of them on long-term loan. The O’Keefe family contributed $1 million to start a new building fund. In recognition to the family’s continued support, the museum was renamed the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in honor of Annette O’Keefe. Other donations and proceeds from fundraisers added to the building fund. Beachfront property along Highway 90 was purchased for the new campus to give the museum more visibility and make it more accessible.

“The new museum is celebrating the independent and creative spirit of George Ohr and promotes his legacy and the heritage of the Gulf Coast,” Mecham said. “It is such a fitting tribute to his innovative and creative spirit that an architect with that same innovative and creative spirit should be designing this museum. We are about to open a truly unique cultural attraction for a truly unique and exceptional man.”

Never one to underestimate his work, George Ohr said, “When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored and cherished” as he packed away his pottery for the last time. He never sold another piece of pottery in protest of the public’s dismissal of his style. An eccentric and often misunderstood man, he is finally getting the attention he deserved.

“It took the art world quite some time to recognize his genius,” Mecham said. “After Ohr’s death in 1918, his entire body of work, nearly 7,000 pieces, was stored in crates inside his son’s garage. It wasn’t until 1968 when a chance meeting occurred between an art dealer and Ohr’s son that his pottery once again saw daylight.”

Not long after that time, Ohr’s pottery caught the attention of artists Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that his work really began to take off.

“After a showing in New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery, critics began to take notice of the eccentric pottery, and they weren’t the only ones,” Mecham said. “Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson bought pieces, and Ohr’s stock continued to rise.”

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