It seems a long time ago, but in late December and early January, I swung through the Southwest. I’ve written about my visits to Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, in Arkansas, as well as museum visits in Fort Worth, Houston, and Dallas, but I’ve saved the best for last. That’s the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.
It’s almost entirely Native American and Western art and artifacts. It’s not an overstatement to call it the west-of-the-Mississippi’s Smithsonian.
I’d never been there. The Gilcrease isn’t a big museum, or doesn’t seem so, but it’s immensely important. Its anthropology collection is 300,000 artifacts covering all eras of Native American life. Its 100,000 object manuscripts collection is amazing. It includes a long letter written by Diego Columbus, Christopher’s son, describing life circa 1512 in Hispaniola and the earliest certified version of the Declaration of Independence. It’s not the famous broadsheet but a handwritten version from 1777 signed by Benjamin Franklin and sent to the court of Frederick the Great. The new America was looking for friends abroad, and they needed to know what we were all about. Gilcrease loved the one-of-a-kind book or document, like the Declaration of Independence or a book George Washington owned.
For art-lovers, though, it’s one of the great museums of Western painting and sculpture. It’s known for a comprehensive collection of bronzes by Frederic Remington but also radiant portraits of Native Americans by Charles Bird King and George Caitlin. Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Charles Marion Russell are much in evidence. A wing of the museum shows Native American art. The Gilcrease does contemporary art shows, too.
“Who’s Gilcrease,” you’re asking, as I would. Thomas Gilcrease (1890–1962) was an oilman whose fortune started with a 160-acre land grant to which he was entitled as a member of the Creek tribe on his mother’s side. The Gilcreases were farmers and shopkeepers, not poor but rural, so the gospel of work was a constant. Black gold lay beneath Gilcrease’s legacy. He became a driller, bought more land, drilled more, and soon was rich. He went to Europe and fell in love with art.
Gilcrease started buying art in the 1930s, dabbling until he bought lock, stock, and barrel the incomparable Western collection of Philip Cole, a tire magnate in New York who’d grown up in Montana. This purchase put Gilcrease on a path and on the map. He was a more omnivorous collector than Amon Carter, who focused mostly on paintings. Gilcrease’s collection of Native artifacts, most of which I consider art rather than anthropology, is probably the world’s most comprehensive.
Gilcrease brought the collection to Tulsa in 1949. The City of Tulsa bought it in 1954, though Gilcrease stayed deeply involved. He continued to buy, and the museum has always attracted donors. It has, after all, a serious scholarly mission. Discerning donors want their gifts used and preserved in context with things from the same era or school, and they want their gifts respected. Many collectors, say, in the Southwest have assembled focused, rich collections with things that are the best of their kind. They correctly look locally first when it comes to finding a home for their art and archives. The material then stays part of a local heritage.
There are many good reasons to visit Tulsa and the Gilcrease, but, for me, Thomas Eakins’s Portrait of Frank Hamilton Cushing, from 1895, is the best. It’s Eakins’s first full-length male portrait and the most exotic thing he did. Cushing (1857–1900) was the anthropologist who studied the Zuni tribe in New Mexico by immersion, not strictly going native but living at the Zuni Pueblo for five years in the 1880s. A savant, at 19 he was appointed the ethnographic curator at the Smithsonian. He wrote a pioneering study of Zuni fetishes. I bet these days the easily triggered crowd will find dung-heap-sized reasons to object to Cushing. Still, he’s a fascinating guy, and the portrait is one of the greatest American paintings of the century.
It’s life-size, so it has immediate presence. Cushing’s obviously a paleface, but he’s dressed in practical Pueblo-dwelling clothes, including high art’s first skinny jeans, with a mix of ceremonial touches and feather fetishes. He was 37, what I’d say is an “old 37,” and much has been made of his seeming sadness. Eakins might have pushed his look to an extreme, so some scholars have seen the figure as sad, pensive, and spent. I don’t buy this, since photographs of Cushing show a razor-thin, emaciated look that some people naturally have. Cushing is said to have been frail all his life. We know he was in Philadelphia for medical care. Eakins met him through friends at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s certainly the opposite of Philadelphia genteel, which attracted Eakins to him.
It’s a dazzling picture, too, in its splashes of bright color and abundance of intricacies. Cushing and Eakins together created a mock version of the space at the pueblo where Cushing worked. Eakins usually left his figures on their own, with an indecipherable dark background setting them off. But Cushing’s is elaborate. Browns and terra cotta create a Western look. Cushing wears the ceremonial costume of a Priest of the Bow, the zenith of Zuni society. His buckskin trousers and boots sparkle with rows of silver buttons. He wears an earring with dangling bits of turquoise. All eyes land on Cushing’s face, serene, tough, and pockmarked from a bout with smallpox.
The Cushing portrait isn’t an outlier. Eakins painted dozens of portraits of scholars, doctors, and scientists. Some of his portraits are austere and dark, but Eakins loved the chance to paint sumptuous textures and fancy clothes. Still, it’s a Western subject, and it’s in Tulsa, so art historians haven’t thought about it as much as they should.
Gilcrease bought the painting in 1948 when he was moving from a collecting generalist to a relentless focus on the American West. The old taste is still evident in Nocturne, the Solent, by Whistler, a bewitching picture, and Watching the Breakers, by Winslow Homer. These are good to see and, hat tipped to the curator, sensitively placed with Western landscapes to look at home. It helps that the Gilcrease has the best nocturnes by Frederic Remington.
The anthropology collection at the Gilcrease encompasses the utilitarian and the aesthetic and is in a separate department from the art collection. This is traditional and fine, but I look at lots of things people would call archival or anthropological and see art. A Paleo-Indian spear point from about 15,000 b.c., for instance, is a handsome object, effective as it might have been in felling a bear. Native American feather fans are religious but, to me, they’re a chromatic feast. A Lakota beadwork dress from the late 19th century is high style and exquisite. I look at these objects as American art as much as I see a Copley or a Revere teapot as American. Over time, I see the boundary separating Native and Anglo-American art dissolving, not entirely since historical Native art is an intense specialty but to the point that they’re seen together more often.
This leads me to the Gilcrease building. It’s slated to be demolished and replaced soon. There are other buildings on the property housing the library and archives and the anthropological collection. These are staying.
I found the building for galleries to be immensely satisfying. It’s not showcase architecture, but it’s attractive and functional like most museum buildings from the 1950s, which were built to do the job of providing a stage for art. The galleries are human-scale. The building reserved for galleries isn’t big, and that’s its downfall, but it’s commodious. I saw nice spaces for special shows such as Landscapes on Fire, a group of paintings by Oklahoman Michael Scott on the creative and destructive power of forest fires. The art resonated with the Gilcrease’s permanent collection, heavy as it is with Western landscapes, but felt freestanding and had its own character.
Weaving History into Art was on view as well. It shows the work of living Native women artists inspired by Shan Goshorn (1957–2018). She’s an Eastern Bank Cherokee artist who lived in Tulsa and worked in basketry, silversmithing, painting, and photography. I’d never heard of her. Her art deals with Native historical trauma, of which there’s plenty in Oklahoma. I learned a lot without feeling bludgeoned by recrimination. The temporary exhibition galleries aren’t huge, but they’re small and various enough to promote storytelling.
I loved Carol Emarthle Douglas’s baskets and especially Holly Wilson’s Bloodline. It’s a 22-foot-long wall sculpture. On top of a long piece of locust wood cut in equal segments and assembled to look like an artery, small bronze figures process in a line. Each segment represents a generation. The tree’s cut lengthwise, so viewers see its own history. Bloodlines legally determine eligibility for tribal membership. The figures are anonymous and wraithlike. Most of us know little about our ancestry, but it’s ours nonetheless, unique and influential.
Clearly the curators have a strong, focused vision that’s refreshingly consonant with the collection and its home. The Native presence in Oklahoma, especially the Cherokees, is powerful.
The Remington bronzes are arranged in a long, narrow space side by side, promoting a look at his style as it evolved. Good material on the connoisseurship of bronzes gives visitors a thorough understanding of art that’s iconic but knotty.
There’s a welcoming courtyard that’s spacious but not aggrandizing with a simple desk to get tickets. I got to see art almost immediately. The gift shop is one of the best I’ve visited, with a balance of books and Oklahoma craft.
The Gilcrease needs more gallery space, though. I’m certain of that. It wants to show more Native art, and we need, nationally, more good spaces to display a survey of the best of this material, which is what the Gilcrease owns, though in storage. In 2016, Tulsa voters approved a sales-tax hike to pay for a citywide culture makeover that gives the Gilcrease a new building with much more gallery space. This project starts very soon. It’ll cost about $84 million.
I hope the Gilcrease doesn’t fall for an overweight, overindulged visitor-service function. People go to a museum to see art, not to be welcomed to the point of exhaustion. I cringe when I hear the words “visitor experience” used to justify museum-building projects, since, from observation, that means to me lots of money dumped on frills.
I abhor, for instance, dedicated special party spaces in museums. Unlike neurotics, I think it’s fine to serve food and beverages in galleries, which makes them the best party spaces imaginable. Spending a fortune on dedicated event space — empty most of the time — is a waste of money. Since the money for the new building comes from the City of Tulsa, it’s fair to worry about a needless diversion privileging space for amenities over art.
I wish I’d stayed longer in Tulsa. It’s a fabled oil town, founded on gushers, and that appeals. Places driven to prosperity by oil tend, in my opinion, to have the friendliest, most practical people. The money is mostly new, so the rural, impoverished past isn’t too distant. They’re Baptists or Methodists, so they keep airs in check. Ranching’s a big business, too, and a cultural reference point. Herding and breeding cattle isn’t for the lily-livered.
Tulsans know that almost everything’s made from oil, and they chuckle at the very notion we can change the world’s climate by banning it. And Will Rogers was from Tulsa, or from nearby Oologah. “Live in such a way that you wouldn’t be afraid to sell your parrot to the town gossip” is good advice, combining as it does sheer absurdity with the merits of self-control and a clear conscience.
Editor’s note: This article had been edited since its original publication.