OKLAHOMA CITY — One of the most meditative art museum experiences is out in the middle of the Great Plains, in a place you would likely never think to look.
The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, is a relatively recent achievement in creating a refined museum experience around carefully curated exhibitions of art. I visited the museum this week, on a trip down memory lane to my alma mater, to experience both the museum’s 2005 main structure and recent 2011 wing that added another 18,000 feet of exhibition space. The museum holds some high profile acquisitions, including works by Jasper Johns, Gauguin, Monet, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Pissarro, although it’s really a museum where it’s not each individual piece that’s a feature, but the movement between space and ideas.
The “old” part of the building, the main entrance section, opened in 2005 and was designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen with nine “pavilions” with peaked roofs, each with its own skylight, connected by passages of limestone and glass. Yet while light and substance is definitely the theme here, the new 2011 Stuart Wing is much more bombastic, with its light and use of wood and glass. Designed by Rand Elliott + Associates, whose severe modernist angles have set the tone for much of the new Oklahoma architecture, it is mainly filled with American Indian art, particularly from the Eugene B. Adkins Collection. That collection is so massive and significant that it’s actually shared by both the Fred Jones and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa.
Honestly, things like finely crafted pottery don’t usually have much resonance with me, yet out in the arrangements of glass cases beneath the sunlight I found their details to be really exquisite. Often American Indian art can end up in the shadowy galleries of larger museums; here everything is given the space to breathe. I know the museum’s collections are much more substantial than what is out in the galleries, but there’s a minimal approach to each gallery that is oriented toward the feeling of being in a museum, and being with art, that is really exceptional.
Obviously, a really great thing about the museum is its accessibility to students on campus, although the museum is free to anyone who wants to stop by. It’s not perfect, as there are some odd choices like a mishmash of modernist and contemporary art confined to a crowded subfloor that doesn’t have the same level of curation as the upper spaces, and it can be heavy on the iconic artists for its genres like Allan Houser and Doel Reed, but it is one of the better museum wanders I’ve had. However, it’s really a place that’s all about the visuals, so here are some photographs to walk you through the stunning space:
The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (555 Elm Avenue, Norman, Oklahoma) is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am – 5 pm, with extended hours to 9 pm on Fridays.
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