NEW ORLEANS — A walk through the spacious galleries of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which opened here in August, takes you from the elegant landscapes and urban scenes of the Charleston Renaissance to the bold, expansive spaces in contemporary Texan art; from sedate portraits to jumbled mixed-media sculptures; and from the relative tranquility of the Old South to the tumult of World War II and the civil rights movement, which changed the South forever.
With so much ground to cover, you might wonder what ties the collection together. That's the same as asking, "What is Southern art?" says museum founder Roger Ogden. "That's the $64,000 question."
During his 30 years of collecting the 1,200 works that form the core of the museum's collection, Mr. Ogden has had time to consider the answer. Beyond the geographical definition, he says, Southern art is best defined by an interest in community, spirituality, family, and "a preoccupation with history and culture."
The most important but elusive characteristic is that the art conjures up what Ogden calls "a sense of place." Southerners are set apart by their deeply rooted love for their region's disparate vistas and moods, for the natural landscapes that range from the lush swamps of Florida to the Appalachian Mountains. The artworks show clearly what each artist loved and valued.
Although the museum seeks to define what makes Southern art distinctive, Richard Gruber, the museum's director, says, "We're saying the South is part of American art; we're not arguing that we're a province that needs to be, somehow or other, boxed in." Instead, he'd like to see Southern artists reevaluated in the larger story of American creativity.
The works are on display in Stephen Goldring Hall, which houses the museum's 20th- and 21st-century collection in an angular new building of sandstone and glass. Next fall a second wing is scheduled to open. It will exhibit the museum's 18th- and 19th-century collection in a brooding, neo-Romanesque library built in 1889. Together, the buildings illustrate the Ogden's mission of celebrating the South's history while embracing its future.
The juxtaposition of old and new architectural styles in the Ogden's two buildings is made even more interesting by what's sandwiched between them: the unaffiliated Confederate Museum.
After a lengthy court battle over the ownership of the Confederate building, it has been allowed to stay. A tunnel will be constructed below the Confederate hall to connect the Ogden's wings.
The Ogden's inaugural exhibition is titled "The Story of the South." As you walk through galleries devoted to states, decades, and styles, previously underestimated regional artists are presented and connections between artists and places are revealed.
"In the '50s, '60s, and even in the '70s often the art world talked about art in a more formal sense," says Mr. Gruber. "A painting hung on a wall spoke for itself, and you didn't talk about anything beyond that. We think it's very difficult to talk about Southern art without talking about context."
He cites Clementine Hunter, one of the luminaries of folk art, as an example of an artist whose work can't be separated from the environment where it was created. Hunter was born on a Louisiana plantation where her grandparents had been slaves, and she began painting on window shades and cardboard boxes when she was in her 50s. Her paintings disregard laws of perspective and bear allegiance to no particular artistic style; they're simple presentations of community events seen by a fresh eye.
Gruber recalls that the curatorial staff went to the riverbank Hunter painted in "Panorama of Baptism on Cane River" to walk through the fields and talk to the people in the community. "We got a feel for it," he says, "and then we thought about how we could bring that [context] back into the larger culture of the museum."
One strategy is an upcoming series of multidisciplinary events that will display the cultural environments that gave birth to the Ogden's visual art collection.
Gruber hopes the events will make clear the connections between the South's different forms of creative expression. Narrative painting, for example, is a style that crops up throughout the decades, and is based on one of the oldest Southern traditions.
"Why do we have so many good Southern writers?" asks Gruber. "Because there's so many good Southern storytellers, so many front porches, or kitchens, or country stores, or post offices, or town squares where stories are swapped, traded, and expanded upon. Why wouldn't that work its way into the art?"
The persistence of narrative painting is also linked to the South's turbulent history. Many Southern artists eschewed the Abstract Expressionism that swept through the country in the second half of the 20th century because of a need to document the radical changes taking place around them, namely urbanization and racial integration.
Abstract expressionists do find a small niche in the museum. Kendall Shaw's painting "Northside Light" is a confusion of eggshell blue, pale yellow, and white brushstrokes with no discernable shapes or patterns, yet the audioguide explains that Shaw was trying to capture the special evening glow he saw from his studio while living in New Orleans in the 1960s.
The influences of the South hadn't previously been noted in his work, but Shaw maintains that the saturated sunlight of New Orleans summers and the swirls of color and motion at Mardi Gras parades left a lasting impression.
The opening of the Ogden is only the latest triumph in New Orleans' campaign to recast itself as a city of arts and culture. In the 1990s the Warehouse District was born when rows of 19th-century buildings were saved from the wrecking ball and converted into art galleries.
Now there's a Museum District with the National D-Day Museum and the Ogden on the same downtown block as the Contemporary Arts Center. Next year will see the opening of Louisiana ArtWorks, where visitors can roam through a mix of open art studios and craft boutiques.
The arts boom is a tremendous resource for locals and for tourists who seek to better understand the region. "Visitors have such an appetite to access the art of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Deep South," says Ogden, "and now we can offer it to them."
• For more information: Ogden Museum of Southern Art, University of New Orleans, 925 Camp St., New Orleans, LA 70130; (504)-539-9600. Or see www. ogdenmuseum.org.