Documenting the history of man in North America

It's ironic that what is generally considered the greatest collection of the art of the American West is here in the ''pin-striped'' part of Oklahoma.

And yet the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, like the man for whom it was named, represents an intersection of two important Tulsa themes: oil and the Indian culture.

Thomas Gilcrease (1890-1962) was a Louisiana native whose Creek blood won him a government allotment of 160 acres of Indian Territory in 1899. His acreage turned out to be part of the Glennpool field across the Arkansas River from Tulsa, once one of the world's largest oil fields.

Oil didn't make him as rich as it made J. Paul Getty or Waite Phillips, but it enabled him to start collecting art.

When he got the bug, he got it in a big way. Museum director Fred A. Myers rattles off the statistics of the Gilcrease collection: 8,000 paintings and sculptures; 41,000 artifacts; and some 81,000 books, manuscripts, and documents. The paintings include numerous works by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt, as well as a sampling of Eastern artists such as Charles Willson Peale and John Singleton Copley.

Among the manuscripts are correspondence between Indians and the US Army, which marched so many Southeastern tribes out to Oklahoma; the first official decree by the Spanish conqueror Cortez after the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan; and original copies of the Declaration of Independence and William Penn's treaty with the Indians.

Mr. Gilcrease collected at a furious pace for some 20 years, often buying whole collections at a time. Then in the early 1950s, with oil prices depressed, he found himself overextended. Not wanting to break up his collection, he sought a buyer to take it over in toto.

Tulsans decided they wanted the Gilcrease collection - then accessible to them as a private museum - to stay put. And so in 1954, a year not otherwise known as a cultural boom period in Oklahoma, voters approved a $2.25 million bond issue enabling the city to acquire the collection, making the Gilcrease a city museu.

Mr. Gilcrease collected Western art partly because he knew he couldn't outbid the Kresses and the Mellons for Renaissance madonnas, and partly because of his natural sympathy for his own Indian heritage.

''Scratch hard enough, and you find Indian culture in everything here, Mr. Myers says. ''Sympathy for the Indian is one of the recurrent themes here.''

He seems a little more hesitant about the ''cowboy'' label the museum is stuck with, and he chuckles a bit disparagingly at the notion that ''some people consider us a cowboy-and-Indian museum.'' He explains, ''Nearly all the flat-out 'cowboy' stuff was in the Philip Cole collection, which Mr. Gilcrease bought in 1944.'' Cole was a New York businessman whose roots - and heart - were in Montana.

''It seems to me Mr. Gilcrease intended to put together a collection to document the history of man in North America,'' Mr. Myers adds.

As artists, some of the painters in the Gilcrease collection are taken more seriously than others. Remington is being newly appreciated as a painter who in his later years, at least, followed movements such as Impressionism; Russell, on the other hand, couldn't have cared less.

A strong documentary strain runs through the work of many of these painters; art takes second place to history. They were striving to record a way of life that was vanishing even as they painted, a way of life that had become a source of myth even in their own time.

The Gilcrease is a particularly ''accessible'' museum because most people have some familiarity with the American West, and also because there is so much anecdotal detail in the pictures. There's no doubt what's going on. Charles Schreyvogel's ''Breaking Through the Line,'' for example, shows a cavalry officer leading a charge and aiming his handgun straight at the viewer.

The Indian artifacts exhibit a particular appeal for many, because ''they show how people lived,'' Mr. Myers says. Mr. Gilcrease himself liked to be able hold things in his hands, he said. Nor is he the only one. On one recent Saturday afternoon, the tactile appeal of one particular buckskin dress was evidently proving too much for the visitors. The guard surveying the scene by remote TV cameras would occasionally thunder forth over his loudspeaker, like the Wizard of Oz from behind his curtain, ''Please do not handle the displays.''

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