I have to admit: I sometimes forget about Gilcrease Museum. I know, I know. It's a local treasure and only about a mile from my house, so I should visit more often than I do. But where Philbrook Museum of Art has been successful -- in its efforts to attract a younger, more diverse demographic through its doors by implementing programming that is attractive to these groups -- Gilcrease could improve.
The museum has wonderful programs for children -- the Creative Learning Center, Kid's Site, Kravis Discovery Center and educational classes, for example -- but I don't think it stands out in the minds of people my age (Gen Xers, Gen Yers and Millenials) as a cool place to hang out.
It is, though, the best place to go to be educated on American history and American art history, and two of its current exhibitions are perfect exemplars of this fact.
America: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of a Nation and Perfectly American: The Art-Union and Its Artists, both of which opened earlier this summer, offer large-scale (the former) and small-scale (the latter) examples of Gilcrease's commitment to education through art.
America is like a history lesson in pictures. Beginning with the settlement of Jamestown and Plymouth colonies in 1620 and ending at the dawn of the 20th century, America uses art and artifacts to depict early American history.
The first part of the exhibit showcases the colonial era through artifacts of the period, including a cover of The Royal American Magazine with a woodcut by Paul Revere, and through portraits by artists like John Singleton Copley, Robert Feke and Benjamin West. The Revolutionary War period is also explored using crucial American documents such as Gilcrease Museum's handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, as well as a rare bust of the Marquis de Lafayette by Jean Antoine Houdon.
The next section of the exhibition focuses on the rapid growth of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, following the story of the first explorers to the West and showcasing the work of George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller and other artist-explorers of that era. Catlin's first portrait of a Native American are featured, as well as an American Art-Union piece, Boone's First View of Kentucky. An essential narrative of this time is the removal of Native Americans from their land. The important work Black Hawk, and His Son Whirling Thunder by John Wesley Jarvis is on display, as well as other portraits of Native American warriors.
The exhibition also highlights such figures as Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and the story of America's first war on foreign soil, the Mexican War. Art and documents reflect the ideas behind the notion of Manifest Destiny that served as a justification for western expansion and the struggles involved in shaping American identity before the Civil War.
The debates about slavery and the tragedy of war are also presented, with the figure of Abraham Lincoln looming large in the final portion of the exhibition, both in the art of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and in the signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. There's also a handwritten receipt for the sale of a slave: $1,000 for a 50-year-old man.
The exhibition concludes with a discussion of the last push westward and the closing of the frontier, featuring the art of Frederic Remington, as well as Native American art and artifacts.
Much of the exhibit is from the museum's own collection, which serves to remind patrons of just how important the place is (or should be) to Tulsa. Other pieces are on loan. While it helps to enter the exhibit with a good amount of historical knowledge already intact, America provides a concise and beautiful portrayal of the important events and figures that helped shape the country in its earliest decades. It helps to bring life to words we've read in books, providing context and making them tangible, especially for young viewers and learners.
It also helps exacerbate the importance of art in history and brings forth images by artists usually only read about in books or seen at large history museums elsewhere in the country. The exhibit will remain on display through Jan. 1, 2012.
Smaller in scale and scope is Perfectly American, but it's important in that it brings to light a lesser-known element of art and American history.
In 1843, a group of New York businessmen and artists set out to change the art world and thus created the American Art-Union. The organization aimed to bring art to the masses, encourage new talent, and above all, celebrate the unique character of American art. By selling subscriptions and distributing both prints and oil paintings, the directors of the Art-Union hoped to foster a love of art that moved beyond aesthetic appreciation, elevating the morals and uplifting the everyday lives of those who paid their $5 a year or who visited the Perpetual Free Gallery in New York City.
By supporting American artists depicting American scenes, the directors of the Art-Union shifted the focus away from the traditions of Europe and towards the promise of a new nation. Opposition abounded, though, with foes openly criticizing the organization's lottery system, calling its work mediocre and accusing its directors of using funds for personal and political gain.
In 1852, the New York Supreme Court declared the Art-Union's lottery system illegal, and the organization folded, auctioning off its inventory and closing in December of that year.
The Art-Union was one of the first great experiments in American art and is often overlooked in American history. Although only viable for 13 years, the Art-Union influenced American art and culture well beyond its tenure. Gilcrease Museum houses several paintings originally displayed in the American Art-Union's Free Gallery -- as well as many of the prints distributed to subscribers -- from artists as diverse as Alfred Jacob Miller, William Tylee Ranney, and Thomas Cole.
This exhibit is on display through Oct. 2.
Also on display at Gilcrease, through Jan. 15, 2012, is To Capture the Sun: Gold of Ancient Panama, an exhibition of ancient gold and pottery crafted by native inhabitants of the Gran Coclé region of Panama.
Gilcrease is at 1400 North Gilcrease Museum Road. Hours are 10am to 5pm Tuesday through Saturday. Tickets are $8 for adults, with discounts for seniors and students. Children under 18 are admitted for free. More information is at gilcrease.utulsa.edu.
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