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NEW ORLEANS — On a hot September day, William Andrews — dressed in a navy blue suit over a pale pink button down — arrived at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in downtown New Orleans. Andrews, the museum’s director, walked into the five-story building with a pleasant greeting for every museum employee he saw that afternoon.
“She’s from Mississippi, too,” he said of one employee working at her desk.
A native of Starkville and former resident of Oxford, Andrews relocated to New Orleans in 2012 to continue his career in celebrating Southern art and tradition. The Ogden, located in the city’s vibrant Warehouse Arts District, was only 13 years old then and had only been situated in the University of New Orleans’ Stephen Goldring Hall on Camp Street for nine years.
“It’s unplanned and kind of interesting how many current staff at the museum and former staff have been from Mississippi,” Andrews told Mississippi Today. “I think a lot of that is because, if you’re interested in arts and culture, this is the closest arts center of incredible magnitude, of incredible history, of incredible consequence and a large amount of magnetism.”
During his time in Mississippi, Andrews spent the early years of his career embedded in the same place that served as his treasured stomping grounds as a child. With both of his parents working as professors at Mississippi State University, Andrews became “incredibly enamored of the collegiate lifestyle,” even as a young boy.
“Even though we were not college students, we grew up going there all the way through,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to go to the school of art, and I was really fortunate to get a scholarship there. Even though I had looked at some other schools, I really felt a connection to that university and that department of art. So, I spent some time getting a degree there.”
Andrews dedicated himself to reciprocating exactly what the city of Starkville and its university gave to him: a sense of community. He recognized a need for spaces to bring art and people together. In 1994, after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, he opened Main Street Gallery in his hometown.
“I was really passionate about the place where art and people meet,” he said. “Even at that time in the gallery world, especially in the Deep South, there weren’t so many.”
Andrews, who also completed his Master of Fine Arts at the university, went on to become the director of MSU’s McComas Art Gallery. And in 2009, he moved to Oxford, taking the role of director of the University Museum and Historic Houses at the University of Mississippi. Two years later, Andrews assumed his current position at the Ogden. According to its website, the Ogden is a museum with the mission “to broaden the knowledge, understanding, interpretation and appreciation of the visual arts and culture of the American South through its events, permanent collections, changing exhibitions, educational programs, publications and research.”
When Andrews was growing up, he would jokingly claim New Orleans as the capital of Mississippi. He spent much time visiting and exploring the sunken city, which proves to be a popular destination for creatives, especially those originally from other parts of the country’s southern region. While still a Mississippi resident and even before the Ogden existed, Andrews would make trips to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center.
No matter which of the two states he was in – Mississippi or Louisiana – both places and their complementary cultures seemed to effortlessly merge for Andrews.
“An interesting thing happened,” he said. “After I graduated, the collector Roger Ogden was loaning his collection for exhibition at the [MSU] university gallery, and I worked on that project. That’s what introduced me to this genre, art of the American South, as a distinct classification and as a method by which we could talk about the place that we have come from and the people that we are and our history and our future.”
Those important conversations are what drive the curation and programming at the Ogden. Although the museum is known for shining a light on the work of artists particularly from the 16 Southern states, Andrews says incorporating the work of artists from outside the South is also important, especially if the art speaks to the museum’s mission.
“We had an incredible exhibition of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat in 2015,” he said. “Basquiat was born in Brooklyn. He had been to New Orleans but had not lived in the American South. But the entire body of work was about the history of the South, with titles like ‘Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta’ and ‘Zydeco.’ It’s just a really beautiful range of paintings about the Southern experience.”
Just like Basquiat and Andrews, many artists from all over the world have made an effort to travel to New Orleans to soak up the city’s robust arts and culture scene. Mississippi, which Andrews points out as much more spread out in comparison to Louisiana, may not have a world-renowned city that serves its artists in the same capacity as the Big Easy. But the state’s many art forms have found their way down the Mississippi River, contributing largely to the New Orleans culture.
“From a tradition that’s been established for many generations and decades, if not centuries, New Orleans has been a place where culture just sort of coagulates at the end of the river and accumulates,” Andrews said. “A lot of what you’ll see in the Mississippi Delta, you’ll see in New Orleans. A lot of what you’ll see in the Piney Woods, you’ll see in New Orleans. A lot of what you’ll see in the North Mississippi Hills, you’ll still see in New Orleans.”
For Andrews, there isn’t much that could completely distinguish his original home of Mississippi from his current home of New Orleans. The two places share the one thing Andrews has always appreciated and held on to since he was a child: a strong sense of community.
Whether it was through opening a gallery in his hometown of Starkville, teaching art to young, aspiring artists or serving as the director for an art museum in one of the world’s most creative places, Andrews has strived to not only maintain that sense of community for himself but has also accepted the challenge of bringing that same sense of community to those who may not already have it.
“I think everyone wants to see a state of prosperity for where they’re from, if not for all places,” he said. “It’s something that’s very important. Socially, politically, you hope people are investing in the right thing, which in Mississippi, is other people. You want there to be communities that are good for people.”
And, according to Andrews, communication is key.
This story is an exclusive of The ExPat, part of Mississippi Today’s Mississippi ExPats Project. Click the button below to receive this specially curated newsletter for Mississippians living outside the state.