Gilcrease Museum contains a collection of art, artifacts, and documents that exemplify the varied aspects of American culture. The museum is almost entirely the result of the collecting activities of its founder, Thomas Gilcrease (1890–1962). In about twenty-five years he acquired more than 10,000 works of art, a library of 100,000 items and more than 250,000 archaeological and ethnological items. In 1949 Gilcrease Museum opened as a public institution in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In the 1890s the Gilcrease family had moved to the Creek Nation in Indian Territory. Thomas Gilcrease's tribe membership entitled him to a land allotment, which several years later became part of one of Oklahoma's early oil fields. Gilcrease proved to be an able businessman; he soon founded the Gilcrease Oil Company and expanded his original holdings. During the 1920s and 1930s extensive travel, with visits to European museums and libraries, apparently prompted his aspiration to create his own collection. Pride in his American Indian heritage and his interest in the history of the American West provided a direction for his collecting activities.
Gilcrease purchased his first oil painting in 1922 and after the late 1930s spent most of his time developing the collection. In assembling items for the museum, he would seek out single works and also buy large groups of material from dealers and other collectors. At times he obtained paintings from family collections and occasionally directly from artists, including early-twentieth-century American Indians and others painting in New Mexico.
During the early 1950s Gilcrease accumulated numerous works of art and documents. Then, faced with increasing debts relating to purchases for the museum, he offered to sell the entire assemblage in order to keep it intact. In 1954 Tulsans supported a bond issue for payment of his debts. He then deeded his collection to the City of Tulsa in 1955. He also allocated oil property revenue to the city, to continue until that income repaid the amount of the bond issue. This goal was achieved in the early 1980s. In the years following the transfer of the museum to Tulsa, Gilcrease funded archaeological excavations and acquired more materials. Upon his death in 1962 he donated these additional items.
The materials in Gilcrease Museum reflect a unity, growing from the focus of their collector. Most pieces in some way document life in America from ancient until modern times. Notable strengths are prehistoric and historic artifacts from the indigenous cultures, paintings, books, and manuscripts from the founding of the United States and Mexico, and art and documents recording the West's landscape and events on the frontier.
Gilcrease Museum is often considered a museum of Western art, with notable works by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. However, the art collection reflects four hundred years of representational art, depicting the landscapes, peoples, and activities of America. Included are works by landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, George Inness, and Thomas Moran. There are also paintings by American masters John James Audubon, William Merritt Chase, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent. Exhibitions from the permanent collections often feature such themes as American portraiture from the eighteenth through nineteenth centuries and cultural encounters in America. There are large collections of paintings by numerous artists who documented the changing frontier; among these are George Catlin, Seth Eastman, Alfred Jacob Miller, and John Mix Stanley.
The Gilcrease Museum also houses many unique documents. Among the most noteworthy are certified copies of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, authorized by the Continental Congress in 1777 and bearing the signatures of Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. These handwritten works, accompanied by a letter from the two American ambassadors, were presented to Frederick the Great of Prussia. In addition, there are two letters from Diego Columbus and hundreds of sixteenth- through eighteenth-century manuscripts relating to Spanish activities in the Western Hemisphere. The library also has extensive collections of the manuscripts of elected Cherokee chief John Ross and Choctaw leader Peter Pitchlynn. These collections are available for research.
Special exhibitions are featured several times throughout the year. These displays continue the theme of Americana, focusing on a new element, medium, era, or artist. Overall, Gilcrease Museum, through its exhibitions of art, documents, and artifacts and special programs, endeavors to present the many and varied stories of America.
Peter H. Hassrick, Treasures of the Old West, Paintings and Sculpture from the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1984).
Fred A. Myers, Thomas Gilcrease and His National Treasure (Tulsa, Okla.: Gilcrease Museum Association, 1987).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Sarah Erwin, “Gilcrease Museum,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GI004.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.