Ohr museum is beginning to dance with the trees

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The Mad Potter's new museum is starting to take shape.  The frames for three buildings that will make up the Ohr O'Keefe Museum of Art's east campus have been erected.  Ohr staff members believe they'll unveil the new museum in early 2011.

Stephen Koenenn is overseeing construction of the one-of-a-kind campus in east Biloxi designed by noted architect Frank Gehry.

Noting the materials being used, and the architectural intricacies being applied, Koenenn said, "It's probably a project that we'll never see again."

Koenenn became project manager at the museum after the Ohr board of directors agreed that rebuilding was the right thing to do.  Larry Clark is the board's president.  He said the decision was critical because of what it means for south Mississippi.  When Clark looks at the east Biloxi construction site, he said, "I see the future of the gulf coast."

Clark admits there was a time after Katrina when the Ohr board wondered if the Mad Potter's artwork would ever be dancing with the trees, the way Gehry once envisioned.  "And to come back and to see this now, it's extremely gratifying," he said.

Don't forget, the 2005 hurricane pushed a casino barge into the property, obliterating the original buildings that had already been framed.  It turned out that was a blessing in disguise.  Clark noted that at the time of the hurricane, 60% of the museum complex was done.  However, he also said the Ohr board was out of money, and likely couldn't complete the project.  "The fact that it is happening is 100% because of the phasing approach," said Clark.

Phase one is the work on the east side of the property.  The Ohr board already has the $22 million it needs to build a welcome center, an exhibit gallery and a home for African American art under a canopy of majestic oak trees.

"To have been counted out as many times as this museum has been counted out, and then to see the progress, and to know that we will have a functioning museum here in just a matter of months is extremely gratifying," he said.

A specific opening date for the Ohr museum's east campus hasn't been set yet.  When the Mad Potter's art is showcased under the dancing trees, Clark said it would be a testament to south Mississippi's strength.  "We were hit hard.  We were knocked totally out.  A lot of people didn't think that the gulf coast would come back," he remembered.  "It's coming back bigger and stronger and better everyday.  And I think this museum is part of that."

So what about the pods, and the hurricane damaged building on the west side of the Ohr property?  Clark said they were now part of phase two of the construction project.  And they wouldn't be worked on until the Ohr board raises more money.  With that in mind, a fundraiser will be held on July 9, specifically to raise money for the west campus project.

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