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Fund Established to Help Save Gehry's Ohr-O'Keefe Museum in Mississippi

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Models of the Ohr-O'Keefe
Images Courtesy Frank O. Gehry and Partners

Friends of David Whitney, the respected art curator who died last June, launched a building fund in his honor at New York’s Gagosian Gallery on December 9. It will aid reconstruction of the Ohr-O’Keefe museum, in Biloxi, Miss. The Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, was headed toward a July 2006 opening when it received substantial damage during Hurricane Katrina.

The centerpieces of the 25,000-square-foot museum were four podlike gallery pavilions to show the work of George E. Ohr (1857-1918), the famed “mad potter of Biloxi.” Ohr is celebrated as one of America’s first ceramic fine artists. Flamboyant and mercurial, Ohr made the act of throwing pots a performance, producing colorful vases, bowls and pots pinched and ruffled into shapes of impressive delicacy. Whitney was consulting curator for the museum’s inaugural exhibition when he died. Whitney was also a prominent art collector, and the long-time life partner of architect Philip Johnson.

“David was a great friend,” said Gehry, standing by an architectural model of the complex at the Fund launch. “I will do whatever it takes to get this institution back on its feet.”

Gehry’s design included six twisting, metal-clad pavilions arranged around 26 ancient live oaks on a four-acre site. The gallery "pods” are like curved silos, and the rest are boxy pavilions with overlapping curved-metal roofs. Gehry used elements found in local architecture, such as porches and open-air belvederes, on each pavilion.

A casino barge blown onshore by the storm crushed a pavilion devoted to African-American folk art and history. The unfinished gallery pods were seriously damaged. The storm also destroyed the Pleasant Reed House, an 1887 “shotgun” house that had been moved to the site. A center for ceramics, which included storm-resistant storage was only slightly damaged. Pavilions designed to house artists-in-residence and education programs were also damaged. The Ohr pottery collection was offsite during the storm and was not harmed.

Insurance will cover much of the damage according to Gerald O’Keefe, who once the mayor of Biloxi and helped launch the museum with a substantial early gift. The David Whitney Fund will specifically aid the reconstruction of the gallery pods. The museum project was budgeted at $30 million. It is unclear how much additional money will need to be raised to upgrade storm resistance. The museum now expects to reopen in about two years.


James Russell