When I was a Tulsa city councilor and then a deputy mayor, people would frequently approach me in almost any environment to discuss city issues from A to Z … asphalt to zoning. I learned great ideas from those conversations in the frozen food section at the grocery, the register at the dry cleaners, the waiting room at the doctor’s office, in those unplanned encounters that led me to research, examine and then act on any number of issues raised by people who cared deeply about Tulsa.
Since my appointment as Gilcrease Museum’s executive director nearly five months ago, I find myself in many unplanned encounters and discussions about the museum. Although the issues are different from my city hall days, the conversations feel familiar to me in how deeply people care about Gilcrease and its future.
Museums are changing, and the people who shared ideas with me over the holidays were engaged and excited about the changes they see at the museum and in the Tulsa arts scene in general. There is a growing understanding and expectation of what an arts “experience” should be. The notion that museums and other arts offerings have been selective, exclusive and accessible to only those with advanced degrees must be part of the past to ensure a creative and healthy future, certainly for arts institutions, but most of all for society. With any transition or major cultural shift, there are tremors that destabilize not only long-held beliefs, but the believers.
But change is not on the horizon, it’s here now. The most important thing to understand about today’s museum visitor is that one size does not fit all. With the “collapse of culture” into a virtual museum on every smart phone and laptop, the museum experience must offer what people of all ages are hungriest for but cannot find on a hand-held device — connection with one another. Empty nesters, who delight in their grandchildren, but don’t care for the raucous noise of kid-themed eateries, look for entertainment suitable for all ages. Millennials, who have grown up working in teams as students but as screen-agers outside of the classroom, look for connections in social experiences that can be shared in real time as well as on Instagram. And all ages look for those “aha” moments where they find relevance, information and experiences that engage them in seeing the world differently and how they fit into it.
No doubt the planned expansion for Gilcrease is an exciting and overdue opportunity that will allow Tulsa to better share its world-class collection with the world. And while we contemplate the configuration of this much-needed wall space to accomplish this goal, we at Gilcrease are equally committed to the important work of removing walls, those invisible barriers that limit access to a certain few.
Thomas Gilcrease miraculously brought together under one roof a collection of art and history that is as vast as the American experience itself. As much as we have an obligation to conserve and protect this collection, we must put it to work for Tulsa by engaging our city in a much broader conversation and serve citizens through the attraction of tourism dollars to our local economy. As we chart a new course for Tulsa’s treasure that is Gilcrease Museum, we commit to creating a culture of access, relevance, understanding and the joy found in life-long learning such that every Tulsan and every visitor can and wants to frequently “find themselves” at Gilcrease.
Executive Director of Gilcrease Museum and Helmerich Center for American Research
Vice President for Public Affairs, The University of Tulsa