More people visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in two months than attend the Gilcrease Museum in a year.
This doesn’t sit well with city leaders and Gilcrease officials, who believe some visionary thinking — and $65 million in funding from the Vision Tulsa package — could boost the museum’s annual attendance five- or six-fold, putting it on par with Crystal Bridges.
“We’ve got the collection, we just need the house for it,” said Gilcrease Executive Director James Pepper Henry.
The Gilcrease Museum collection includes more than 350,000 pieces and is worth billions of dollars. The museum’s top 10 pieces, Gilcrease officials estimate, are worth more than the entire collection at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Ark.
Yet the Gilcrease averages only 80,000 visitors a year. Crystal Bridges draws half a million.
Everyone, it seems, loves Crystal Bridges. The numbers indicate that not enough people feel the same way about the Gilcrease.
There are hurdles the museum must overcome if it is to ever soar to the heights of popularity that Crystal Bridges has enjoyed since opening in November 2011, Gilcrease officials say.
A few of those hurdles include the widely held perception that the museum is in a remote outpost far from downtown; and the general public’s misperception regarding what exactly is in the museum.
“Thirty years ago, this would have been acceptable,” Mark Dolph, a curator at the Gilcrease, says of the museum. “But in 2016, with Crystal Bridges, we need a facility worthy of the collection.”
Gilcrease Museum, 1400 N. Gilcrease Museum Road, was built in the late 1940s by Thomas Gilcrease and opened in 1949. It was donated to the city in 1954. Museum officials say the facility itself has never caught up with the collection it houses.
The collection is magnificent, but only a sliver of it can be displayed at any given time, and never in a setting befitting of the art, museum officials say.
At Crystal Bridges, Pepper Henry notes, nearly all of the museum’s collection is on display. At the Gilcrease, nearly all of it — approximately 97 percent — is in the basement.
Then there’s that pesky perception problem. The museum, built with views of the Osage Hills to the northwest and downtown Tulsa to the southeast, is less than five miles — and about a 10-minute drive — from Tulsa’s City Hall.
Yet a major travel magazine recently published a story describing the museum as a 20-minute drive from downtown, much to the consternation of museum officials.
“We’re this treasure and we’re only minutes from downtown,” Pepper Henry said. “But people think because we’re north of the freeway we’re out in the sticks or something.”
Museum officials say Vision Tulsa funding that the community is being asked to approve for the museum on April 5 would not only pay for a bigger, better facility where more art could be displayed, but that the investment would serve as a symbol of the city’s continued commitment to its most valuable asset.
The museum, in both stature and in height, would stand taller than ever.
“We want to build up and get above the treeline so that not only do we have a great view of downtown Tulsa — we want people from downtown to see us,” Pepper Henry says. “We’ll be like a beacon up here on the hill.”
The museum’s expansion and renovation plans include the following major components:
- Expanded entryway: Put more than a few dozen people in the existing entryway and people start bumping elbows. The new entryway would hold 800 to 1,000 people and be used by the museum for functions and exhibits and could be rented out for private events. The new entryway would include a coffee shop and museum store.
- Expanded exhibit space for traveling shows: The existing space is about 4,000 square feet; the new space would be 12,000 to 15,000 square feet. This would give Gilcrease space to bring in world-renowned exhibitions such “King Tut” and the “Imperial Tombs of China.”
- Interior overhaul: The interior of the museum would be completely renovated and reimagined to allow for a new interpretation of how the collection would be displayed.
- Expanded display space for the museum’s permanent collection: The museum has about 32,000 square feet to house its permanent collection. The plan is to expand that by 8,000 to 10,000 square feet. The museum has hundreds of thousands of pieces of art, artifacts and archival documents that seldom see the light of day because there is no place to display them.
- New Kravis Discovery Center: A new 6,000 to 7,000-square-feet center would be constructed. The existing center is 1,000 square feet. About 25,000 school children visit the museum every year. The museum’s goal is to provide more interactive and immersive experiences for children and their families.
- New museum store: The Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz., where Pepper Henry once worked, makes millions of dollars a year from its gift shop. That money is used to help fund operations. Pepper Henry believes the same thing could be done at the Gilcrease by expanding and upgrading the museum store and including more one-of-a-kind work from Native American and local artists.
- Restaurant relocation: The Restaurant at Gilcrease would be relocated to the top of the new facility to take advantage of the views.
- Underground parking garage: The garage would hold approximately 430 cars and be built into the side of the property. It would be covered by grass and not be visible from the museum. The parking garage would allow the museum to accommodate the additional visitors it expects to draw once the renovation and expansion are completed.
For Tulsans who might scoff at spending $65 million to upgrade a museum, Pepper Henry has an answer. The Gilcrease, he’s quick to point out, is a city-owned facility — its most valuable asset, in fact — and it has not seen a major renovation in about 30 years.
“It belongs to the people,” he says. “It is going to be up to the people to make this (upgrade) happen.”
It’s a wise investment, too, Pepper Henry insists.
“With an upgrade to the Gilcrease Museum, we could bring in half a million more people into Tulsa each year,” he says.
Those visitors will stop at other art institutions in the city, eat in local restaurants and stay in local hotels, boosting sales tax revenue along the way, Pepper Henry says. And visitors to Crystal Bridges will drive two hours to see the new-and-improved Gilcrease just as visitors to the Gilcrease will surely head east to Bentonville, Ark., to check out Crystal Bridges.
Pepper Henry is not selling a Field of Dreams. He knows that it will take more than building a shiny new structure for half a million people to flock to the museum each year. The Gilcrease also needs to expand its programming to give people reasons to return, and it has to do a better job of marketing itself.
“In general, the average person really does not understand or comprehend what we have here,” Pepper Henry says. “So part of our strategy is, No. 1, to upgrade our facilities so we can showcase a lot of this, but also to kind of rebrand and remake ourselves, reposition ourselves in the museum world as one of America’s finest museums and cultural institutions. And that, in and of itself, should be a huge draw.”
This much is certain: No other project in the Vision Tulsa package has the kind of commitment in matching private dollars that the Gilcrease has. The University of Tulsa, which partners with the city of Tulsa to operate the museum, has pledged $50 million to the project.
“The University of Tulsa will pursue a much needed endowment for Gilcrease Museum to ensure its sustained operation well into the future,” says TU’s Susan Neal.
THE CRYSTAL BRIDGES COMPARISON
There are good reasons why Henry, Neal and others associated with Gilcrease Museum have not been shy about comparing the institution to Crystal Bridges.
They are both, after all, museums of American art.
Still, at first blush, the comparison seems like a stretch. Judging by attendance, the museums are not even close.
But when it comes to its collection, the Gilcrease takes a backseat to no one. The museum has a larger, more comprehensive and what museum officials proclaim is a more valuable collection than Crystal Bridges. It’s not even close, they say.
Crystal Bridges has approximately 2,300 pieces of art, primarily paintings, sculptures and works on paper, that cover the nation’s history from Colonial times to the present.
The Gilcrease’s collection of paintings and sculptures alone includes more than 12,000 pieces, including the best of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.
That may help explain why the Gilcrease is thought of by many as a Cowboy and Indian museum.
It’s a perception museum officials insist is wrong.
“We certainly have a world-class collection of art of the American West … but it’s really so much more,” said Dolph. “I like the term Americana — whether it was art, whether it was rare books, maps, documents, journals, or artifacts human culture — the things that people have made over the 10,000 years here in the Americas.”
On any given day, a visitor to the Gilcrease can spend a leisurely hour roaming the galleries and see everything from the only known surviving hand-written copy of the Declaration of Independence — used by Benjamin Franklin as a diplomatic instrument — to a nearly 2,000-year-old ceremonial pipe bowl from the Woodlands culture to an 1839 muster roll listing Cherokee tribe members and their slaves forcibly removed from North Carolina.
Then there is Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls on the Snake River,” regarded as one of the artist’s greatest works.
All of this from the 3 percent of its collection Gilcrease has room to display.
What can’t be displayed is even more staggering: Row after row of paintings hanging from storage racks that fill an entire room in museum’s basement, and that is just one below-ground storage area.
In a nearby room, a graduate student has started cataloging thousands of pieces of Native American artifacts (pottery) — all part of Gilcrease’s effort to create an online database of its artwork.
“I’ve been doing archaeology for the past six years, and we get excited when we’re in the field and we find one little piece of these pods,” said Jesse Nowak. “Here we have just this massive collection … this is probably the best collection in the southeast for (pre-Columbian) ceramics.”
The Gilcrease, like most other art institutions, relies on traveling shows to complement and diversify its displays.
Pepper Henry, a bolo tie wearer himself, was instrumental in bringing the “Native American Bolo Ties, Vintage and Contemporary Artistry” exhibit to Tulsa. The exhibit told the story of the history of the bolo tie.
Chocolate lovers will feast on what the Gilcrease is bringing to town later this year. The “Chocolate” exhibit will run from Oct. 9 through Feb. 8, 2017.
It’s a good example of what the museum is all about, Pepper Henry says, and a reminder that the Gilcrease is more than Cowboy and Indian museum.
“Chocolate is part of popular culture, but there’s also a lot of history behind chocolate,” Pepper Henry says. “Us being a museum of the Americas, of course chocolate originated in the Americas with different cultures — Mayan culture and Aztec culture.
“We’re telling an indigenous story with chocolate and we’re also telling the popular culture story of chocolate.”
Explaining Crystal Bridges’ Success
Alice Walton wanted to bring the best of American art to northwest Arkansas. She has succeeded.
The museum’s curved walls are lined with such masterpieces as “Our Town,” by Kerry James Marshall; “Jimson Weed” by Georgia O’Keeffe; “Rosie The Riveter” by Norman Rockwell; and Richard Caton Woodville’s “War News From Mexico.”
Visitors can also gaze at “The Tower,” a sculpture by Robert Rauschenberg; Charles Willson Peale’s “George Washington” and Asher Brown Durand’s “Kindred Spirits.”
Andy Warhol is represented, too, with his black-and-white, hand-painted “Coca-Cola 3.”
And the museum last year added a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, the Bachman-Wilson House, to the property.
It’s magnificent stuff. But it doesn’t explain the museum’s success.
The artwork, it turns out, is just a piece of what makes Crystal Bridges special. That is by design.
Architect Moshe Safdie’s vision was to create a place where the natural beauty of the 120 acre-property and the architecture of the museum would be celebrated as much as the artwork, says Crystal Bridges Public Relations Manager Beth Bobbitt.
“You can see it in the glass, you can see it in the wood, the pine he uses and the concrete is really mimicking the natural geology of the land,” says Bobbitt. “One of the goals is to provide you with these views and remind you where you are — you’re in the Ozark landscape.”
The museum’s small exhibit on its history drives home that point. It’s titled: “BUILDING CRYSTAL BRIDGES, Art, Architecture and Nature”
“You can’t help but be immersed in each one of those elements, whether or not that is why you are here,” says Bobbitt.
The museum is named after Crystal Spring, one of two springs that feed the man-made ponds on the property. The museum sits in a ravine, the ponds and the rolling hills of the Ozarks visible through the massive glass walls of the its bridges.
Crystal Bridges has taken pains to not only showcase its natural surroundings, but to encourage visitors to immerse themselves in it.
More than 250,000 native plants and cultivars have been planted on the property, including 1,600 trees. About five miles of trails run through the museum property. The Art Trail, which includes sculptures by Andre Harvey and Robert Indiana, runs from the south entrance of the museum to downtown Bentonville.
After taking an elevator down from the parking lot to the courtyard, the first thing visitors see is “Maman,” the massive sculpture of a spider by Louise Bourgeois.
The museum entryway opens on to one of the museum’s two glass-walled bridges, this one home to Crystal Bridges’ signature restaurant, 11. The views of the ponds below and the surrounding countryside make for a great setting to enjoy the restaurant’s offering of local cuisine.
The curved walls of the exhibit halls are themselves attractions. They not only contribute to the structure’s slick look, but allow visitors to view more than one painting at a time when not directly facing the wall.
The artwork in the museum is displayed chronologically, from Colonial days to the present. This makes it easier visitors to understand and appreciate the history of American art.
”Often times American art is dated from Colonial times to about 1945, and then it usually becomes categorized as modern art or contemporary art,” says Mindy Besaw, a curator at Crystal Bridges. “We’re unique in that we’re covering American art as our core collection and so it might be kind of strange to stop at 1945. So we have a unique ability to look at American all the way to the present.”
Besaw believes Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, built Crystal Bridges to not only celebrate and share great American art but to draw people to the beautiful land she called home.
“Hopefully, we’ve done it in a way that if you come for the architecture, you can’t ignore the nature and the art,” Besaw says. “If you come for the trails, you’re going to encounter great architecture and great art and all of that. You can’t come hear and experience one without the other.”
It seems to be working. Since opening in 2011, the museum has drawn more than 2 million people, or an average of about 500,000 people a year.
More than 10 new restaurants have sprouted up in Bentonville since the museum opened, and city officials estimate the population, now at about 42,000, will grow by 50 percent by 2030.
Bentonville has also seen significant increases in its hotel/motel and restaurant tax revenue since Crystal Bridges opened.
The city’s 2 percent hotel/motel tax increased from $409,812 in 2011 to $629,007 in 2014, with 2015’s collections expected to be even more, according to Visit Bentonville.
Revenue from the city’s 1 percent restaurant tax, meanwhile, increased from $922,839 to $1,264,454 over the same period.
The city’s hotel/motel occupancy rate has gone from 49.6 percent in 2012, the first full year after Crystal Bridges opened, to 58 percent in 2015, according to Visit Bentonville.
This is not all Crystal Bridges’ doing. Northwest Arkansas has become a haven for foodies and artists, and Bentonville’s downtown has been going through a revitalization for years, but city officials say there is no doubt the museum has accelerated the growth of the community.
Blair Cromwell, vice president of communications for Visit Bentonville, says new restaurants, art galleries and other businesses began to pop up as early as 2005, when it was announced Crystal Bridges would be built.
“I really think they saw dollar signs,” Cromwell says. “Here was this huge arts museum bringing dollars to the downtown… The idea was that they would stop at Crystal Bridges and learn, oh, my gosh, there is so much more.”
Not everyone in Tulsa was initially thrilled with the idea of spending $65 million to improve the Gilcrease.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett and most city councilors lined up behind the project the first day it was proposed, but there were some councilors who pushed Pepper Henry and others to make the case for how the city would recoup its massive investment.
The museum director remains bullish in his belief that building a facility worthy of the museum’s collection — and marketing the new facility properly — will spur more interest in the museum and bring more people to Tulsa to see it.
And he is not alone.
“A transformed Gilcrease Museum would put the city’s most valuable asset to work for the residents of Tulsa. Studies have shown that for every $1 invested in museums and other cultural organizations, $7 is returned in tax revenues,” says TU President Steadman Upham. “Historically, Tulsans have overwhelmingly supported Gilcrease Museum. As far back as 1954, they embraced this priceless collection through a visionary vote of support, and we are confident they will do so again on April 5.”
Bartlett says that when Thomas Gilcrease donated the museum and its art to the city, he did so with the understanding that the city would someday provide more display space.
“We haven’t gotten to that point,” Bartlett says.
Bartlett believes the improved Gilcrease would provide visitors with better access to the collection as well as the museum’s archives.
“That would lead to a tremendous amount of interest from the public in the museum, the same way Crystal Bridges has been experiencing,” says Bartlett.
That experience will be further enhanced down the road, Bartlett says, when the city — working with TU — uses separate funding packages and private dollars to link the city’s trail system to the museum’s 460 acres and beyond to the Tulsa Botanical Garden.
At the end of the day, the city’s payback will be more than a fabulous museum, Bartlett says. It will also include renewed interest in the community and the economic benefits that come with it.
“It is the same thing as our BOK Arena, or the ballpark,” Bartlett says. “It brings people to the area.”