Taming Western Art

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1943

Thomas Gilcrease, whose parents had Creek ancestry and whose first wife was Osage, grew up on Indian lands within present-day Oklahoma. Oil was eventually discovered under 160 acres he had been allotted as a tribe member. He proved an astute businessman, and built his own substantial oil company.

At a time of scant appreciation for art coming out of the American West, Gilcrease began acquiring paintings, sculptures, historical documents, Indian handcraft, contemporary Indian art, and archaeological items (many from digs he financed himself) associated with his home region. In 1943 he opened the first version of the Gilcrease Museum, focused on Western art, at his oil company’s headquarters. In 1949 he built a grand villa for displaying the growing collection on his estate near Tulsa. He eventually conveyed the museum to the city of Tulsa, along with oil revenue to maintain it—buildings, contents, and 23 acres of grounds landscaped thematically with plants important to different Western peoples and time periods.

The Gilcrease Museum represents one of the largest and richest collections of fine art, artifacts, archives, and flora associated with the American West. It helped give legitimacy to its field, and inspired other collectors of Western art and culture.

Amon Carter was a classic self-made Texan. He was born in a log cabin 65 miles from Fort Worth in 1893, and raised with no access to the arts and high culture, but a series of sales and advertising jobs eventually led him to majority ownership of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and several radio and TV stations. Carter was also an early evangelist for the oil and gas industry. After drilling 90 dry holes himself he eventually discovered a large reservoir he sold to Shell Oil in 1947 for $17 million. These funds became the basis of the Amon Carter Foundation.

Carter became an energetic booster of Fort Worth, and of the West in general. One of his best friends was comic Will Rogers, with whom he shared a passion for American pioneer history. He began to collect Western art aggressively, and when he died in 1955, his will provided for a major Western art museum that opened in 1961 with an impressive array of Frederic Remington’s art, and an almost complete collection of Charles Russell sculptures. It also holds one of the great collations of American photography.

Sid Richardson was another Texan who made a million dollars in oil in 1919-20, lost most of it, then struck it rich (again in oil) in 1933. He gave generously to churches, hospitals, and schools in his home region, and developed an appreciation for the art of the West after he took up ranching in the 1930s. In 1982 his Sid Richardson Foundation opened an art museum to display his collection, free to the public, in downtown Fort Worth.

One of the finest museums in this genre is the American Museum of Western Art, created by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. It is surely the most comprehensive. Its Anschutz Collection begins with expeditionary art created by the West’s first explorers, includes examples from the Hudson River and Rocky Mountain painting schools, the Taos and Santa Fe schools, Regionalist painters, New Deal art, right up to works of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism with Western links. All are housed in the historic Navarre Building across from the Brown Palace in downtown Denver.