Thomas Gilcrease And His Western Museum


Gilcrease spent and acquired at a feverish pace. He bought up whole collections from private hobbyists. He bought up the entire contents of artists’ studios as well as the work of the famed art colony at Taos, New Mexico, which hearkened back to the turn of the century. As if to set off the “Westernness” of his collection he also bought costly masterpieces by the most “Eastern” of American artists: John Singleton Copley, Thomas Sully, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer. The oilman could scarcely keep pace with the collector, recalled Lester Whipple, Gilcrease’s chief business factotum. “There was hardly a day when he did not discuss methods of extricating funds from his oil interests to pay for his acquisitions.” But if his associates were worried, Gilcrease was not. “He would spend $250,000 with the same ease that he would part with a $5 bill—if he had the funds,” said Whipple, “and many times when he was not sure if his canoe would make it to shore.” In time his new hilltop “children’s paradise” was forced to close down, sad victim of the tangle of laws, rules, and regulations involved in boarding and educating Indian children. That did not deter Gilcrease either. The general public still needed “some new thoughts” about Indians, as he put it to a reporter from Life, so he went right on collecting. In the space of ten years Gilcrease acquired some four thousand paintings, ten thousand historic artifacts, and twenty thousand extremely rare books, maps, and documents. When the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art—still the museum’s legal name—opened its doors on May 2, 1949, it was already the finest museum of its kind in America. ‘The best collection of art and literature ever assembled on the American frontier and the Indian,” said Life.

The question for Tulsa voters: Did they want a great museum free?

Then, in mid-1953, Gilcrease telephoned his old friend Dr. Humber and told him that his glorious collecting spree had been badly snagged. He owed the art dealers 2.25 million dollars and “certain creditors were exerting an unrelenting pressure upon him for payment,” recalled Humber. If necessary, he could return the unpaid-for artwork, or he could sell his collection outright, but Gilcrease was determined to do neither. As he struggled to straighten out his neglected oil business, however, his financial situation grew steadily worse. Asked at one point to come up with a mere ten thousand dollars overnight or face imminent court action, Gilcrease was so short of funds he had to call on his friends for the money. By an irony that could not have been lost on the self-conscious Gilcrease, he had become yet another in the long roster of feckless oil-rich Indians from the old oil-rich Indian Territory. Nevertheless, if Gilcrease had not spent well, he had spent wisely.

In the spring of 1954 his friends and admirers organized a rescue mission. Calling themselves the Keep Gilcrease Museum for Tulsa Committee, they came up with a plan and persuaded the city fathers to go along. A proposition was to be put before the voters of Tulsa. If they passed a bond issue to pay off Gilcrease’s art debts, he would turn over the museum to Tulsa gratis. In addition, he would pay back the entire 2.25 million dollars from his producing oil wells in East Texas. So the question for the voters was to be, Did they want to acquire a museum for nothing? An affirmative answer was not very forbidding, but the committee was taking no chances, for no citizenry anywhere had ever voted to accept or reject a museum.

Committee members campaigned for the Gilcrease Museum as if it were a candidate for high office. They made speeches all over the county and secured supporting editorials and favorable news reports. They distributed a brochure that carried eminent endorsements for the Gilcrease Museum: Life magazine—“worth millions”; Time—“a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Western Art” Inez Robb, the nationally syndicated columnist and a resident of Tulsa—“If Tulsa lets it go, the city will, within a few years, want to blow its brains out.” The city wanted its brains intact. In August 1954 it went to the polls and voted 8,905 to 3,188 in favor of making Gilcrease a municipal museum by paying off Tom Gilcrease’s debts. Today in Tulsa countless road signs proudly indicate the way to the hilltop museum.