Thomas Gilcrease put part of his private collection on public display in 1943, creating the world’s first museum devoted to Western American art. But it wasn’t in Tulsa.
The oil tycoon had moved his corporate headquarters to San Antonio six years earlier. That’s where his exhibition opened. And that’s where his world-class collection could have stayed.
As a Muscogee-Creek citizen, Gilcrease got rich from his 160-acre allotment, which just so happened to lie within the famous Glenn Pool where Oklahoma’s first major oil strike came in 1905. Gilcrease’s property eventually wound up with 30 wells on it.
He took that small fortune and, in 1922, started his own oil company, which made him breathtakingly wealthy. Then a trip to Europe, where he visited some of the world’s best museums, sparked an interest in art. But as an Oklahoman and a Native American, he wanted his collection to reflect his own culture and history.
By the 1940s, Gilcrease had accumulated thousands of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, photographs and artifacts. But rather than hoard it all for himself, he wanted to share it with as many people as possible.
San Antonio, however, didn’t seem very interested. Disappointed by the number of visitors, Gilcrease closed his original exhibition space after only four years and moved his collection to Tulsa, where he opened the Thomas Gilcrease Museum next door to his private residence northwest of downtown in May 1949.
The city organized a bond issue five years later to buy the collection and ensure that it would stay here forever, with Gilcrease donating some of his oil revenues toward paying off the debt. And Tulsa has treasured the museum ever since.
But it still doesn’t get as many visitors as it deserves. A few years ago, museum officials set a goal to begin attracting 100,000 people a year, about a fifth of what the Crystal Bridges Museum brings to Bentonville, Arkansas, every year.
Voters approved a Vision Tulsa package in April 2016 that included $65 million to expand the Gilcrease, then the A.R. and Marylouise Tandy Foundation added another $10 million.
The museum is in the design phase of a dramatic overhaul that will give the facility a whole new look and vastly enlarge the exhibit spaces, allowing more of the extensive collection to come out of storage and go on display. After the new, improved Gilcrease opens, perhaps sometime in 2023, it hopes to draw more than half a million visitors a year, putting it on par with Crystal Bridges and becoming a significant regional tourist attraction.
And to think it could all be happening in San Antonio.