When the Knoxville Museum of Art‘s Collectors Circle members visited New Orleans last month, they got up close and personal tours of two very different museums in that city — the venerable New Orleans Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The Knoxville museum’s curator, Stephen Wicks, said that was a deliberate decision on the part of those who planned the trip.
“Those are the two best museums in New Orleans,” Wicks said. “It was meant to be a study in contrasts.”
And, it was for sure. The New Orleans Museum of Art is over 100 years old and contains more than 40,000 objects of art. “Most museums that have been open a long time eventually become encyclopedic, meaning that they contain great collections from all over the world,” Wicks said.
The Ogden, on the other hand, is a relatively new museum. Founded in 2003, it originally contained the collection of one person, Roger Ogden, a New Orleans businessman who donated more than 1,100 works from his private collection to start it. Today it contains more than 4,000 art objects with a focus on artists from the Southeastern United States. It is recognized as containing the largest and most comprehensive collection of Southern art in the world.
“The two museums could not be more dissimilar,” Wicks pointed out. “This means that they don’t compete. They complement each other. If you are a person in New Orleans who wants to leave your art collection to a museum, you pretty much know which museum you are going to leave it to.”
For its part, the Knoxville Museum of Art is “right in the middle” between the two New Orleans institutions we visited. One reason for that: we only have one major art museum in Knoxville. “We have a focus on our region, like the Ogden does,” Wicks said. “We did that because no one else was telling our story. We felt that if we didn’t tell the story, it wouldn’t be preserved.”
On the other hand, the Knoxville Museum of Art also has the responsibility to bring the art of the world to the people of East Tennessee, especially young artists, Wicks said.
“If you are a young artist, the great news is that you can connect to contemporary art worldwide here in Knoxville,” he noted. “The art world today is global. There is much more connection than there used to be.” In our museum’s Contemporary Gallery on the top floor, exhibited art works are by people from East Tennessee as well as London, Romania, New York and elsewhere.
The trip to New Orleans was a big success, Wicks said, mostly because the hosts in New Orleans made special times for the guests from Knoxville. We got special access to the New Orleans Museum of Art and a talk by the curator there. Not only did we visit the Ogden, but we were invited to Roger Ogden’s private home to meet him and see his collection.
I’d like to give a plug here for joining the Collectors Circle. I’ll admit that I joined partly because I wanted to go on the trips. But there are many other benefits. Ninety percent of all the money raised by membership in the Collectors Circle goes to fund new acquisitions — and the Collectors Circle members get to have input on those purchases. In addition to the annual trips, members also get special in-town activities such as meetings with artists and behind-the-scenes opportunities. “We want to offer experiences to Collectors Circle members that they probably couldn’t get on their own,” Wicks explained.
Wicks said plans are underway now to decide where the group will travel in 2014. A poll will be taken of members to help make that decision.
To be a member of the Collectors Circle, you must join the Knoxville Museum of Art at the Fellows level ($250). After that, Collectors Circle memberships cost $450 per person or $600 per couple. Alan and I think it’s well worth it.
We weren’t there too long, but you can see that from the Rodin and Magritte pieces to the modern Henrot and Ryman works, the New Orleans Museum of Art really is “encyclopedic” in its holdings. We headed to the Ogden.
Get ready for the piece de resistance!
Ogden said the establishment of the Ogden Museum was “the dream of a lifetime,” even though he never had an art course. Instead he first was a lawyer before becoming a real estate developer.
He started collecting art when he was a sophomore at Louisiana State University. At that time, he convinced his father to purchase a painting as a gift for his mother.
“We collect art because we like it,” he said. “I’m drawn to it.” First he acquired a large amount of Louisiana art and later he expanded the collection to include pieces by artists from all over the American South. “I’ve never believed I actually owned the art,” he said. “I believe I am a steward of it.”
Stephen Wicks was correct. This trip demonstrated very concretely the different philosophies of collecting and displaying art. The members of the Collectors Circle will use these lessons well in the years to come.