What do Gayle Benson, Leah Chase, Mary Matalin, the Krewe of Muses and Women of the Storm have in common?
All are on the exhibitors list for Art in Bloom, a five-day fundraiser that kicked off Wednesday at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Their floral displays are among the nearly 100 featured at the annual event, whose 2013 theme is “Celebrating Steel Magnolias.”
The seeds for Art in Bloom were planted in 1988, and for 25 years now, it has been a rite of spring at NOMA. But even after a quarter-century, the fundraiser remains fresh, thanks to a changing roster of speakers and exhibitors.
This year’s lectures will be given Thursday morning at NOMA by Mississippi garden designer Susan Haltom and by Southern style guru Tara Guerard of Charleston, S.C.
“The speakers we chose tie in closely with our theme,” said Jeanette Slakey, Art in Bloom co-chairwoman with Joey Brown. “Both are Southern women who exemplify a steel magnolia.”
Haltom, who takes the podium at 9:30 a.m., was instrumental in restoring the lost garden of writer Eudora Welty in Jackson, Miss., a story she tells in the book “One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place.”
In the book, Haltom looks at the importance of garden clubs during the early 1900s, when such organizations gave women a way — sometimes their only way — “to meet and discuss and interpret and exchange” ideas on all subjects, she said on “The Reading Life” WWNO radio program. Art in Bloom is staged by NOMA and the Garden Study Club of New Orleans.
Guerard, who speaks at 10:45 a.m., is the author of “Southern Weddings: New Looks from the Old South” and “Weddings by Tara Guerard.” She designs not only events, but also furniture and invitations, for a client list that spans the country.
One tip from Guerard on how to make an outdoor party more glamorous: “I might put pink camellias — which are very Southern — in shimmery olive-green votive holders, so they really pop,” she told a Food & Wine magazine writer. “Camellias are like the peonies of the South — they’re very delicate, but also lush and sexy.”
The lectures will be followed at 12:30 p.m. Thursday by a luncheon and Saks Fifth Avenue fashion show in the Pavilion of the Two Sisters. A combined lecture and luncheon ticket is $150; lectures only, $75; luncheon only, $100.
Through Sunday, NOMA admission of $10 for adults includes the opportunity to view all Art in Bloom exhibits during regular museum hours.
Exhibits include floral displays done by area garden clubs, which are assigned works of art in the museum to use as inspiration. Then there are the displays done by local notables, school groups, professional florists and other designers, typically carrying out the year’s theme.
Joining the aforementioned local exhibitors in the Movers and Shakers category are Lally Brennan and Ti Martin, Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, Junior League of New Orleans, Margaret Orr, YA/YA (Young Aspirations/Young Artists Inc.) and New Orleans City Council members Jackie Clarkson, Stacy Head, Susan Guidry, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, Kristin Gisleson Palmer and LaToya Cantrell.
Among other exhibit categories are Bonsai, Ikebana, Creative Designs and Tablescapes.
Co-chairwoman Slakey was especially looking forward to the Tablescapes entries. “We have some new exhibitors and their space is so much larger than last year,” she said a few days before the preview. “I am also excited to see how the professional designers interpret the theme.”
Brown was eager to see how the garden clubs interpret their assigned artwork through flowers. “But then I really like to see how interesting the Creative Designs people can get. And Ikebana is something a lot of people don’t know about,” she said. “It is all very cool!”
As an added attraction, local actors will give a staged reading of Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” at 7 p.m. Friday at NOMA. The work features such steel magnolia-isms as “Smile! It increases your face value.” Attendance is by regular museum admission, but reservations are required.
Proceeds from Art in Bloom benefit educational projects and exhibitions at NOMA and community projects of the Garden Study Club, including the New Orleans Botanical Garden, Beauregard-Keyes House, Parkway Partners, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, Longue Vue House and Gardens and the Hermann-Grima and Gallier Historic Houses.
Why, it’s enough to make any steel magnolia smile.