Collecting the Best of the West

ART of the American West has inspired collectors all over the world, but several of the best museums of frontier artifacts and paintings were started by real Westerners who knew the territory. These collectors had different credos, but they all had the same impulse to acquire objects that documented their Western heritage.

An oilman and well-known collector, Frank Phillips, was determined to do big things. Phillips was born in a log cabin on the Nebraska frontier Nov. 28, 1873. He was educated in a one-room country schoolhouse. At the age of 14 he not only worked as a barber, but before long owned every barbership in Creston, Iowa.

In 1903, Phillips heard about the new oil field which had just been discovered in Bartlesville, Oklahoma Indian Territory. Moving to the new town, he went into the banking business, which soon extended into the oil business, ensuing in a number of wildcat ventures. By 1917, he and his brother, L.E. Phillips, had incorporated Phillips Petroleum Company.

In 1937 his generosity culminated in the Frank Phillips Foundation Inc. Contributions included helping the nation's youth, the scouting movement, charitable and religious organizations, and many others.

In the mad whirl of the great business tasks that confronted Frank Phillips, the oilman and philanthropist needed a place to rest, renew his spirits, and restore his energy. The place he chose was 123 miles southwest of Bartlesville. It would be called WOOLAROC for the woods, lakes, and rocks in the heart of the Osage Hills. ``...Through this medium, I tried to preserve and perpetuate a part of the country I knew as a young man.''

The result of Frank Phillips's determination to do big things can be seen at Woolaroc. Besides the 3,500-acre wildlife preserve, it is home to an historic lodge and the National Y-Indian Guide Center.

In the museum's many exhibit rooms are collections of original art by the foremost artists of the American West; the works of many fine contemporary artists such as Harry Jackson and Ernest Berke; bronzes by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and the contemporary Joe Beeler; rare lithographs by George Catlin and Bodmer.

Another collector, Thomas Gilcrease, an Oklahoma oilman, established the Gilcrease Museum at Tulsa in 1949, saying ``A man must leave some sort of track.'' It must be a ``worthwhile'' one.

Born in 1890 in Louisiana, he was the first of 14 children. While still a youth, he was allotted 160 acres from the federal government, awarded to individuals who had at least one-eighth Creek Indian blood. He was so proud of his Creek heritage that he never bothered to correct those who thought he was one-quarter. His formal schooling was limited to sporadic attendance at Oklahoma country schools and four months at the Indian College of Bacone in Muskogee.

Gilcrease picked cotton, worked in a cotton gin, and clerked in his father's grocery store. Before he reached 21, he had been a farmer, banker, storekeeper, and oil speculator. When the first oil well in Oklahoma Territory was brought in at Glen Pool field, Gilcrease's 160 acres just happened to be in that rich region. By 1922, he had founded the Gilcrease Oil Company. The company prospered and in the mid-1920s he began traveling extensively in Europe. He visited the world's great museums and monuments. It was then he realized that Oklahoma didn't have a museum, library, or any other institution that chronicled the old civilizations of the Americas before Columbus.

Thomas Gilcrease found something ``worthwhile'' to do.

He began acquiring American art and artifacts in earnest. In less than 25 years he had amassed thousands of art works, including those of Catlin, Remington, Russell, and many more; Indian artifacts; rare books and documents. This vast collection reflects Gilcrease's fierce pride in his Creek ancestry and his love of the American West.

There can be no doubt that Thomas Gilcrease left a ``worthwhile'' track. His is one of the outstanding collections of Americana.

Today the drive to collect continues.

Gene Favell began collecting Indian artifacts in the 1930s. More than 300 artists are represented in more than 800 original works of Western art, plus 60,000 Indian artifacts, at the Favell Museum of Western Art and Indian Artifacts in Klamath Falls, Oregon. No outside operation helps Favell run this museum. He is president, director, and sole curator.

His interest in American Indians started when, as a small boy in Lakeview, Oregon, Indian women brought baskets and beadwork to trade with his mother.

As the boy grew, his interest in Indians and their cultures grew.

It would be almost 50 years before the Favell Museum opened in Klamath Falls, in 1972.

When the collection outgrew the one room in his home, Favell thought of a museum. Since the museum would be of the size seen in a big city but in an area with a small population, it would need more than Indian artifacts to attract enough visitors. Art was the answer.

The West in the 1970s and '80s was being exploited and popularized in many directions: nostalgia, Western clothing, Western movies. People also considered investing in Western art. By this time Favell had become a leading collector.

``A painting should tell a story,'' he said, ``and have a sense of humor.'' Humor is expressed in many of his paintings, such as Crook's ``Smoke Signals'' and Owens' ``The Poisoned Waterhole.'' Eleven members of the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America are featured in the museum.

These three collectors, in preserving art and Indian artifacts, have made an enormous contribution to the West's rich legacy.

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