The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art is the third incarnation of a private nonprofit art museum originally established in Biloxi in 1992 by the Jackson-based Mississippi Museum of Art as a satellite facility located in a wing of the Biloxi Library and Cultural Center. The museum closed its Coast branch on 1 July 1994, and the George E. Ohr Arts and Cultural Center opened in the same location.
A decade earlier, pottery created by George Ohr (1857–1918) had graced a number of Jasper Johns paintings exhibited at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery, garnering critical acclaim for the relatively unknown and long-deceased potter. As early as the 1950s, Ohr’s pottery had appeared on the secondary market and had attracted the attention of abstract expressionist collectors such as Johns and Andy Warhol. After a series of one-man shows of Ohr’s work, celebrity collectors Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson helped fuel an increase in the prices fetched by Ohr’s pottery. In the fall of 1989, ninety-one pieces of Ohr pottery were presented in the American Craft Museum’s retrospective exhibition, George Ohr: Modern Potter, and Abbeville Press released the book George Ohr: Mad Potter of Biloxi.
Another hundred-piece exhibition, After the Fire: The Later, Greater George Ohr, opened at New York’s Kurland-Zabar Gallery in 1994. At the same time the upstairs library space in Biloxi opened as the Pot-Ohr-E-Gallery, displaying 140 pieces, the largest number of Ohr works assembled to that date. In the gallery a statue of the potter at his wheel presented viewers with a life-size diorama, while a re-creation of the family’s Victorian parlor displayed artifacts loaned by the potter’s descendants. Pottery loans from across the Mississippi Coast comprised the inaugural display in the nation’s first museum dedicated to an individual ceramicist. Holding a “Mad Potter’s Ball” and premiering Mississippi ETV’s documentary Mad Potter of Biloxi, the museum enlivened Biloxi’s Fall Festival with a juried art show. Transformation from branch operation to stand-alone arts center was completed with the establishment of the Mud Dauber summer camp for children.
In 1998 Biloxi’s former mayor, Jerry O’Keefe, donated a million dollars to the museum in memory of his wife, Annette Saxon O’Keefe. This donation fueled a movement to construct a freestanding museum on Delauney Street, where George Ohr’s shop once stood. However, plans for the downtown location soon gave way to a four-acre beachfront site proposed by new mayor A. J. Holloway. The mayor’s vision for a campus called Tricentennial Park included the antebellum Tullis-Toledano Manor, along with piers for the Seafood Museum’s two Biloxi schooners, the art museum, and the relocated Pleasant Reed House. City leaders agreed that the park was ideally situated for commemorating Biloxi’s history, and the nation’s top museum designer, Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, was commissioned to plan the cultural complex.
In 2000 the institution was incorporated as the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, and Gehry walked the beachfront site where Lynoaks, a turn-of-the-century mansion, had stood until Hurricane Camille struck in 1969. The live oaks that survived that storm inspired Gehry to design structures that dance with the trees. The model revealed a year later, with porches on all the buildings, evidenced Gehry’s respect for regional architecture traditions. Five separate structures were designed to house the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Three serve as gallery space—one for African American artworks, another for contemporary exhibitions, and the third as the signature pavilion space for Ohr’s pottery. Additional buildings house the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center and the museum’s Center for Ceramics. Respecting the museum’s neighborhood, Gehry’s humanistic endeavor situates the campus entrance on its north side, where the Pleasant Reed House stands as the touchstone vernacular structure in a streetscape of similar buildings.
A 2003 celebration kicked off construction, but in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck, decimating the site. Only the foundation remained from the George Ohr Gallery, and the Biloxi Grand Casino barge had been jammed into the partially constructed African American Gallery. The Contemporary Gallery sustained damage, but the four-story Center for Ceramics weathered the storm well. Though the Pleasant Reed House had been washed away, its archives had been saved, as had the museum’s collection of Ohr pots. Museum staff returned to work in a twenty-eight-foot trailer parked in the wreckage of downtown Biloxi, and construction resumed in June 2007. The demolished historic house was reconstructed as the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center, and the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center, the IP Casino Resort Spa Exhibitions Gallery, the Gallery of African American Art, the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center, and the Creel House opened in 2010. The City of Biloxi Center for Ceramics opened in 2012, followed by “the Pods” (formally the John S. and James L. Knight Gallery and home to the permanent exhibition of Ohr’s work) two years later. The museum is just the second Mississippi institution to earn Smithsonian affiliation.
- Garth Clark, Robert A. Ellison Jr., and Eugene Hecht, The Mad Potter of Biloxi: The Art and Life of George E. Ohr (1989)
- Robert A. Ellison Jr., George Ohr, Art Potter: The Apostle of Individuality (2006)
- Ellen J. Lippert, George Ohr: Sophisticate and Rube (2013)
- Richard Mohr, Pottery, Politics, Art: George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick (2003)
- Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art website, georgeohr.org
- Rita Reif, New York Times (24 September 1989, 16 October 1994)
- Bruce Watson, Smithsonian Magazine (February 2004)