The main source of Thomas Gilcrease’s income was oil. His wealth enabled him to build the nation’s most comprehensive collection of Western Art before Western Art became hot. He avidly bought entire collections. But his tastes weren’t limited to Remingtons and Charles Banks Wilsons. Wilson, a noted Western artist, sold his very first painting to Gilcrease. Gilcrease also acquired Homers, Audubons, Sargents, etc. Among the half a million objects he personally bought was a certified copy of the Declaration of Independence. He was a driven collector and a complex man.
The oldest of 14 children, Gilcrease’s ancestry included Native Americans, so his family was able to moved to the Creek Nation in what was then the Oklahoma Territory. By 1917, more than 30 oil wells were pumping on the Gilcrease property. His first wife was described as “the Belle of Tulsa Society.” His second was Oklahoma’s first Miss America. Both marriages ended in divorce. By 1937 he had moved to San Antonio and opened his first museum. However, the price of crude oil collapsed and he had to move back to Tulsa two years later. By 1952 he was overextended again, so the city of Tulsa floated a bond issue to keep his collection together for the community. It was successful. The museum housing his acquisitions was renamed the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, and Gilcrease lived in a sandstone house on the grounds and often sat near the museum’s entrance where he would greet visitors like a Walmart host. He died in 1962.
The Gilcrease Museum is now owned by the City of Tulsa and partners with the University of Tulsa. It’s minutes away from downtown and my favorite Tulsa tourist attraction. Although it was extensively remodeled in the 1980s, the Gilcrease is ready to be transformed again with a $65 million capital expansion. This will probably allow it to put out more of its vast holdings. According to Quick Facts on its website, only 6% of its 350,000 treasures are currently on view. Lots of space is currently devoted to temporary exhibitions like West Mexico Ritual and Identity, which is on view until November 6 and very worthwhile. A picture of the new museum, which will look a bit like a combination performing arts center and brand new airport terminal, is on its website. This is not criticism but admiration.
Because Gilcrease was also an avid gardener who specialized in native plants, themed gardens cover 23 of the current museum’s 460 acres. This combination of museum and botanical garden also makes The Gilcrease rather unique. In fact, if you’ve heard that this museum is just about Western Art, you need to go there and learn it is not. It’s the most eclectic art/history/culture museum of my considerable experience with an impressive western collection. I especially liked the many Morans that Gilcrease just had to have. However, that’s Albert Bierstadt’s “Sierra Nevada Morning” below. Under it is Woodrow Big Bow’s “Eagle Dancer”.