A Thanksgiving trip to Biloxi, Mississippi was a chance to check out the new Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, designed by architect Frank Gehry, which opened after a 12-year planning period just a couple weeks ago. My niece and nephew were in tow.
Though still incomplete, the structure has been completely rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina initially destroyed it 5 years ago. Due to years of design work, the intricately engineered details, the rebuilding, and the heavy costs associated with post-Katrina construction, total costs are estimated at $45 million for the few clustered pavilions which house the art. Cities have been paying premiums for years to entice “starchitects” such as Gehry to design major cultural institutions in the hopes of putting the host city on the map. But in Biloxi, population 45,000 (and center of a metro region of 240,000), this is a pretty big gamble. Biloxi has casinos, fishing, and decent travel time to New Orleans and Mobile. But it has little else to entice tourists–especially post-Katrina, when much of the old historic fabric of the city disappeared.
Spending this much money begs the question: is it worth it? Time will tell; on the day after Thanksgiving a thin but steady stream of visitors walked through the few exhibits. Above, my niece regards ceramic heads by Jun Kaneko (the museum has a focus on ceramics, particularly the local work of George Ohr, the “Mad Potter of Biloxi”). The small galleries had some well-chosen pieces, curated and displayed in the manner one would expect in a much larger facility. Architectural details were often delightful, but sometimes felt a bit forced or cramped given the humble size of the spaces. And looming in the back of my mind was that price tag–with all the needs this city has, did the building have to be so lavish?
Above is the site after Katrina, showing a casino barge that was literally dumped onto the property during the storm, forcing the builders to start over from scratch.
And above is the now-finished product, a tumble of steel and brick structures arranged across the Oak-filled property.
Above is one of those delightful moments: a playful way of handling natural, diffused light. However, when taken into the larger context of the very confined gallery space, these engineering gymnastics can also feel excessive.
Don’t get me wrong–it’s a fantastic idea for this city to experiment with a major investment in the arts. I hope that this museum attracts thousands of visitors and brings needed revenue into a region which is still hurting. But not every Gehry building turns its host city into an instant Bilbao (this article from the New York Times explores this subject a bit). It will be interesting to see if the Ohr succeeds in placing Biloxi on the cultural map–or if it becomes a rather expensive, steel-clad elephant.
My nephew did enjoy the small but satisfying Andy Warhol exhibit, above. Like Warhol predicted about all of us, at least for now the Ohr is indeed relishing its “fifteen minutes” of fame. The story of the Ohr is worth remembering, as we make choices in our own city about design: when is it appropriate to pay a premium for world-class architecture? Is it ever appropriate to pay a premium for merely the perception of world-class architecture? And when is it appropriate to simply demand good, well-proportioned “background” buildings that won’t garner any international attention but may, when taken into context, create superb built environments? Eminently ponderable questions all.