POSTED ON FEBRUARY 25, 2009:
Gilcrease Museum home to treasures foreign to the Pacific Northwest
When I began writing for Urban Tulsa Weekly more than a year ago, my editor told me, "This isn't Seattle." I've never visited Seattle, so I took his word for it. I could see the potential for differences, but I didn't think to ask him if he'd ever been himself. I thought that replying with an, "Oh ok. What, have you, like, been there or something?" might not leave the strongest of first impressions. I assumed he had. He was merely making a point about my audience. Point taken.
Besides a friend who lives in Seattle, I haven't thought much about the City of Goodwill in the past year. However, I was reminded of its existence on Sunday, Feb. 15 at Gilcrease Museum, 1400 N. Gilcrease Museum Road, in northwest Tulsa.
While nearing the end of my Sunday afternoon stroll through the sumptuous galleries, I bumped in to a recent transplant from Seattle. She's lived in Tulsa for less than a year but has fond memories of aspects of her previous home. She asked me what I thought about "this place," so I told her I enjoyed the museum. It was a safe and true response. She said, "Well, this isn't Seattle." She was underwhelmed, but her children were thoroughly engaged in the children's Creative Learning Center. And, she had a comfy spot among three beanbags, of which I was envious; but I've spent many a Sunday in lesser positions.
Some two hours earlier, upon entering the museum, I paid my $8 entry fee and was greeted with a smile and careful instructions by a staff member. Today, in addition to the permanent work at the museum, I'd be fortunate enough to see "American Impressionist" and "Cheyenne and Arapaho Ledger Art" from Oklahoma's very own Fort Reno. Lucky day! For those of you who don't know, some art goes on tour. Like Styx or Lil' Wayne.
Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum is named after Thomas Gilcrease, who not only provided the vision and a large chunk of the original collection but also the land. His mother's Creek ancestry served as a gateway into his own interest in the American West. Thomas became a key player in the oil industry in the '20s and '30s. He founded the Gilcrease Oil Company in 1922. By 1937, the company's headquarters were located in San Antonio and they'd set up a European office.
Gilcrease's business led him to travel throughout Europe; and in so doing he began to learn of museums. His travels and heritage encouraged him to begin his own art collection devoted to the American West.
His first museum opened in 1943 in San Antonio. But, after moving back to Tulsa in 1949, he opened a gallery. Because few shared Gilcrease's passion for the West, it was easy for Thomas to amass quite a collection in a short period of time.
The 1950s didn't see the prosperity of the '20s, '30s and '40s, so his accumulation of art and profits slowed. As a result, in 1954, a small group of Tulsans organized a bond election that was later handily approved. The bond issue paid Gilcrease's debts. Because of this, Gilcrease deeded the collection to the city. He lived in the sandstone house adjacent to the museum and funded the collection of additional materials until his death in 1962.
In 2008, the City of Tulsa and The University of Tulsa entered into a historic partnership to preserve and advance Gilcrease Museum. While the facility may not be as ostentatious or regal as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or The Art Institute of Chicago, its walls contain important work. And, you're a lot less likely to get lost in the place.
For me, the museum highlighted the resourceful nature of indigenous peoples, something for which I never tire. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Ancient Americas section, which was a pleasant reminder of my travels in Central America. No matter my location, I will always have deep respect for Tikal's massive stone structures that, even today, extend above the tree line. Like other ancient cities, the ritual art as a means of expressing the connection of the gods to members of the ruling elite is evident at Tikal, and, by extension, Gilcrease.
Additionally, I also harbor a fondness for masks.
I read in a museum brochure that when an ancient dancer wore a mask he believed he became the animal, spirit, or being whose face he wore.
I perused the collection but found no masks meant to represent slave owners, a popular theme worn by dancers in Belize. Instead I found masks devoted to iguanas, horses, rabbits, coyotes and the devil. I also felt a little retroactive guilt about some of my insultingly low bartering for similar masks while in Guatemala, but the overall mask experience was a positive one.
The art from South America also piqued my interest: Andean textile art, breastplates and necklaces. But, like most exhibits, I was most excited about the hands-on displays or 'kid-friendly ones'.
"I want these moccasins," Cristi said. I agreed, but because they were glued to the exhibit and wouldn't have fit my foot, I left without them.
Moving through the museum, I was also touched by the work of Thomas Moran. Landscape art isn't my favorite, but I can readily appreciate the size and scope of Moran's work. There's real power in his art. Not because he could re-create some of the most beautiful places in the world, but because his ability shaped our country's history. Especially when considering his role in the creation of the nation's park system and the sense of pride he instilled in our ancestors. The guy has a mountain named after him in Grand Teton National Park for goodness sake! You don't get that kind of recognition for nothing.
Also, Gilcrease's Kravis Discovery Center is home to a collection of pristine artifacts. There are ear spools, fossil teeth, snow knives, ivory pipes and more hands-on moccasins.
In addition to the museum, Gilcrease offers many programs, some of which are free. On March 5 from 10-11am, Kids Dig Books, a free weekly children's reading program, begins. Then on March 7 from 10am-3pm, the museum hosts its first Art Blast Saturday for kids. The program is free and includes face painting, balloon art, music, and family workshops. The museum also features ongoing student art exhibitions (for more details contact 596-2700).
Upon my departure, I stocked up on a free calendar that doubles as a recipe book.
Yeah, this isn't Seattle. It's Tulsa. And, the museum is worth visiting. Take your kids (children under 18 are always free), run your hands along some indigenous footwear, and take in a superb view of the Osage Hills, the Gilcrease Gardens and the Space Nee - wait, BOK Tower.
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