The city’s ambitious plan to reimagine Gilcrease Museum has taken two significant steps forward.
The $65 million Vision Tulsa project is now a $75 million project, thanks to a $10 million donation from the A.R. and Marylouise Tandy Foundation to the University of Tulsa, which operates the museum for the city.
And more importantly, city and TU officials have settled on the core themes that will inform the redesign of the facility at 1400 N. Gilcrease Museum Road. The details are outlined in the museum’s recently completed interpretive master plan and feasibility study.
The privately funded 75-page report was done by Gallagher & Associates.
“We are going to, if you will, rebrand the museum, in the sense of, I think a lot of people have thought of it as just an art museum,” said Patrick Gallagher, the company’s president. “Some people think of it a little bit as a history museum.
“What we are creating is a very unique hybrid of an institution of American history and art.”
That fundamental change in how the museum tells its stories and displays its collection will be reflected in the redesign of the building, which calls for three core galleries, each with its own focus gallery.
The themes of the core galleries will be “This American Landscape,” “Identities and Communities” and “Encounters and Interaction.”
The intent, Gallagher said, is to use all aspects of the museum’s collection to create a historical narrative.
A proposed element of “This American Landscape,” for example, will look at the relationship between Native Americans and new settlers.
“There is plenty of interpretive art that represents that relationship. ... ,” Gallagher said. “We still want you to look at it as a beautiful painting, but we want to juxtapose it with other materials that have similar subject matter that show how the stories began to unfold historically.
“So we are creating a historical narrative by the way we position art and documents and sculpture together.”
Gilcrease curators will use the focus galleries to examine more closely a particular aspect of the core gallery.
“Those are set up on a rotating system, so that each of these three focus galleries could be rotated every six months or a year,” Gallagher said. “Which means every time you go to the museum, you are going to see a new gallery that wasn’t there before.”
Each of the core galleries will have a third display area called “Our Changing America.” The space will be used to provide a historical perspective as to how the narrative showcased in the core gallery has been understood and received over time by various cultures.
“It is an opportunity to bring that historical narrative into a contemporary context that we live in today,” Gallagher said.
Gilcrease Museum Executive Director Susan Neal said the guiding principle behind the redesign of the museum is to create a positive and enjoyable experience for visitors.
“As diverse as this collection is, and as diverse as our society is, we need to be able to make this collection relevant through those stories and through the programming on a consistent basis, and we just haven’t had the space to do that or the design,” Neal said. “This building wasn’t really designed for the visitor.”
Gallagher said those familiar with the museum will find visiting the new one to be full of surprises.
“They will see a collection they are familiar with, there is no doubt about that,” he said. “But the way it is interpreted will be completely different.”
Technology will play a big role in creating that new visitor experience by providing tools to explore stories more deeply.
“It will allow for group interaction, a lot more theatrical experience, so you can add emotion and personal storytelling to this,” Gallagher said.
Other key features envisioned for the museum include a 5,000-square-foot space for temporary exhibits and an expanded Kravis Discovery Center.
When the Gilcrease Museum project was first pitched, much was made of the potential structural changes the facility might see. Those changes are still coming, but what they will look like have yet to be determined.
The city is expected to have an architect selected in the next four to five months. It will take another 14 to 20 months to complete the redesign, city officials said. The construction timeline won’t be known until detailed plans are available.
Gallagher credits Neal with having the foresight to know that museums are designed from the inside out and that until Gilcrease officials re-examined the museum’s collection and the stories it could tell, it made no sense to rush forward with building designs.
“That mistake happens often in museums, where everybody gets excited and runs off and creates something architectural and then forgets that visitors aren’t there necessarily to see the architecture,” Gallagher said. “They are there to experience the ideas of the institution and experience the collections.”
University of Tulsa President Gerard Clancy praised the partnership the school has had with the city and the museum to maintain the legacy of Thomas Gilcrease.
“I can think of no better way to enter our second decade of collaboration than with the launching of this historic project and am excited that TU students and scholars will have increased access to this cultural destination in their own backyard,” Clancy said. “We look forward to all of the new discoveries on the history of the Americas ahead of us.”