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ISSUE 70: Magical Madness

Frank Gehry's Gulf Coast tribute to George Ohr is already stirring things up.

Frank Gehry’s skylight at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.

Let me present a website of a future construction intended to make Biloxi more of a tourist lure: On it, you can study still images from different camera angles. Or view a looped time-lapse film of what's gone up, dragging the cursor across specific sections, zooming in on every detail.

Problem is, those details have dried up. What was expected to come hasn't. Cranes and workers in hardhats dot photos of the proposed, seven-hundred-and-four-million-dollar Margaritaville Casino and Resort—at least, they do from June 8, 2007, until October 15, 2008. After that day, you can't advance the calendar any further. The show ends. The building hasn't grown high enough to block the horizon where the Mississippi Sound meets Deer Island.

Kitty-corner to this defunct development, situated on the north side of Highway 90—also known as Beach Boulevard, a stretch of highway bordering the Gulf—is a second site. This one took a Katrina beating and lay in limbo a long while after. Here, though, a crew labors daily on a cluster of buildings, preparing for a fall 2010 ribbon cutting: the four-acre, Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, designed by the inimitable architect Frank Gehry. Reasons why the ostensibly more ill-fated project (a nonprofit museum, battered by a hurricane) succeeded, while the fait accompli fizzled, intrigue me. So does the notion of whether Gehry's museum might provide a boon to Biloxi that yet another casino couldn't.

"I don't think it was a given until a year after Katrina," says Denny Mecham, the Ohr-O'Keefe's Executive Director, of swirling post-hurricane uncertainties. The museum celebrates the self-styled "Mad Potter of Biloxi": the inventive, iconoclastic George Ohr (1857-1918), a man whose eccentricity and snaking mustache suggests (but predates) Dalí. Gehry's design philosophy drew on Ohr's flourish, and the area's flora. Gehry hoped the museum might "dance with the trees": dance, that is, in lilting harmony with three-dozen live oaks. Only half of those majestic dance partners survived Katrina. What's more, when the enormous Grand Casino barge came unmoored in the hurricane, the storm surge hoisted it ashore and mashed it into the museum's Gallery of African American Art. At the time, the museum was little more than a year removed from completion.

In this story, cruel ironies thrive. The museum and the artist whose legacy it pays tribute to are now bound by natural disaster: In 1894, a fire destroyed Ohr's studio. Before the blaze, Ohr paid bills as a functional potter. "After that his work transitioned to become more experimental," Mecham notes. "Ahead of his time both in form and surface. In the next stage, he was more minimalist, and stopped glazing pieces. Finally, he stopped making pots altogether, because they weren't appreciated." Mecham pauses to savor another irony: The grand opening will mark one hundred years since the mad potter, in frustration and for good, stored an estimated ten thousand pottery pieces—which he called his "mud babies"—including some infants now valued at six figures a pop.

If Ohr could've counted on benefactors like Jerry O'Keefe, perhaps he wouldn't have squirreled away his creations so quickly. O'Keefe, a former Biloxi mayor, has dedicated two million dollars of his own money to the project—the only U.S. museum devoted to a single potter—and persuaded investors to pony up more. Couple this with a post-Katrina, eighteen-million-dollar insurance payout, and museum momentum steamed ahead.

Several buildings will open on November 6: the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center, the Exhibitions Gallery, and a renovated Gallery of African American Art. Two examples of nineteenth-century regional vernacular architecture are already complete. Two other structures, a Center for Ceramics and the George E. Ohr Gallery, are in progress.

Contrast this with Margaritaville. After Katrina, legislators permitted the gaming industry to ditch the barges and build on beachfront. The Margaritaville site, partnering Harrah's deep pockets with the deep base of Jimmy Buffett parrotheads, was poised to become Biloxi's grandest casino—and the largest investment in Mississippi since Katrina. The concept added one hundred thousand square feet of casino floor with two hundred and fifty thousand more devoted to retail. Harrah's President Gary Loveman touted the enterprise as "vital to supporting the rebirth of Mississippi's tourism industry," while coastal native Buffett expressed "an enormous sense of gratitude and good fortune" to be part of that rebirth.

Now Margaritaville is, well, wasting away. With the national economic free fall came squeamish investors. Developers couldn't find new partners to dance with. Cranes meant to construct cabanas, spas, and conference rooms idled to the monthly tune of ten thousand dollars before they were disassembled. "The project is, as far as we can determine, dead now," says Bill Stallworth, the council member for Ward Two in East Biloxi. Stallworth is urging that the remnants be cleared if further progress isn't made within a year. "If you're driving and you see clear land, people can see the possibilities. If you see the concrete started with no action, it's a reminder that something's wrong here: a huge failure has taken place."

Frank Gehry’s Shoofly Staircase at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.

There's no shortage of either critical success, or action and flow, in Frank Gehry's dynamic forms. He speaks of Ohr with admiration, and the fluid curves of this museum evoke the mad potter's expressive shapes and contours. An early museum sketch of Gehry's resembles a cluster of rubber bands spilled on a surface, curling restlessly, like some ballet between human ingenuity and chance. Gehry also implemented regional touches: sweeping staircases, shoofly belvederes. The Ohr Gallery, his design showpiece, consists of a series of four twisting aluminum pods. It's the museum's most immediately arresting element. It's also the one stoking residents' most visceral reactions, from ardor to scorn. "Cruising the Coast brings many more people...than that awful-looking, so-called art center," one resident complained, comparing the Ohr-O'Keefe to an annual antique-car extravaganza. "The average working person could care less about this ugly pile of scrap iron," wrote another. "No one in their right mind is going to plan a vacation just to see this 'museum.'"

"I want to see them operate," Bill Stallworth explains with skepticism of a more tempered tone. "But not at the expense of other needed services. I don't know of a museum anywhere that is self-sufficient, especially in the South. They require assistance from municipalities to keep afloat." He doubts Gehry's name recognition will translate to big crowds in the region. "The number of people who would come because it is a Frank Gehry project is minor in comparison to the number needed to maintain the museum."

In the face of criticism, Mecham remains sanguine. "This project will succeed in the doing," she predicts. "I don't worry too much about folks who fuss about the architecture, because they fussed about Ohr's pots, too." A Gehry scholar mentioned to Mecham that this museum, in fact, is a restrained entry in the architect's oeuvre. Since there are few comparable ventures along the Gulf Coast, speculation on its success must examine projects in different time zones. Gehry's Experience Music Project draws five hundred thousand annually; his Guggenheim museum, a million. Of course, this is Southern Mississippi, not Seattle or Spain. Nevertheless, many devotees are bound to make pilgrimages wherever Gehry builds; before the blessing of the Guggenheim, Bilbao was a port city in steep decline—raw, creaky, rusted.

"Cultural tourism is a big part of our message," says Mecham. "This project will enhance economic development. How much? We don't know."

For Mecham, the larger point is how the museum might enhance East Biloxi, still clawing back from Katrina. "If you look around, so much of the community was simply removed. We're down to one elementary school. It's a physical anchor. A museum brings people, and it brings energy." Their mission focuses on school partnerships, and offering community-gathering spaces like the public welcome center, which will rotate featured Mississippian potters. The museum intends to mingle area artists, like Helene Fielder and Richmond Barthé, with more prominent headliners, such as Andy Warhol and Jun Kaneko. The Gallery of African American Art and Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center—a replica of a nineteenth-century home built by the slave-born Reed, which was vanquished in Katrina—will elevate works by those often cut out of the conversation, providing a solid connection between Biloxi's past and future.

Small pavilions and connecting walkways create an intimate surrounding, ensuring that museum visitors take notice of the shore, or consider how the pod structures twirl and play with the live oaks. The new gambling casinos, by contrast, are situated along the sand but lacking windows, lacking clocks. To step inside one is to feel less like you've arrived at the Gulf's edge than like you've closed a submarine hatch and are now sinking below the surface—water, water everywhere and not a drop to see.

Still, high art and high stakes in Biloxi are clearly intertwined. Look no further than the money trail: The IP Casino and Beau Rivage are both major museum benefactors. As such, Mecham views the casinos as allies. "The gaming industry has helped build this, because they believe that for people to be attracted to an area, it has to be about more than gaming. They're the first ones to say that." Maybe, but legislators have made it clear casinos are top priority, green-lighting projects early and often after Katrina. Biloxi rolled out eight of the eleven; they may have reached a tipping point. After enjoying a surge in popularity, casino revenues have tapered; a slow season has dilated into a slow year.

In this economic climate, and these coastal coordinates, there is, of course, inevitable grousing about a museum's reach and influence—a tension between pods, pots, and slot machines. And suspicion over why a strapped city should allocate funds for a cultural landmark. Yet many are banking that cultural and commercial are not exclusive, even on the Redneck Riviera. I ask Mecham if the Ohr-O'Keefe might redefine perceptions about the region, or catalyze like-minded projects. "We need to assume a leadership role in promoting all the things already here," she says, noting the presence of Shearwater Pottery, the Walter Anderson Museum, NASA's Infinity Science Center, and other neighboring cultural resources. Then she talks about the power in changing perceptions, one tour group at a time. She has already led many through the museum, attendees who had "armor on" at the outset. "Then all of a sudden, they're in the soaring pods. They're transformed. They say, 'I get it,'" Mecham recalls. "I could show them the models. Say we believe Gehry is an architect for the twenty-first century: that he envisioned pods of the future, that the welcome-center staircases reflect our architectural past. You can give the talk. But, ultimately, learning isn't passive. Changing isn't. They have to come."

Photographs courtesy of Frank Gehry and the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art.

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