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Theaster Gates, “Reflections on El Lissitsky” (2013), decommissioned fire hose & wood; Josiah McElheny, “Landscape Model for Total Reflective Abstraction (V)” (2004), mirrored glass table with hand blown mirrored glass objects (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Oil boomtowns like Tulsa, Oklahoma, have seen their downtowns go from bustling centers of the region to quiet and empty spaces. Yet while it hasn’t reached that peak of the early 20th century where stunning art deco buildings proliferated and oilmen built sprawling mansions, the city has seen much recent promise for a return of vibrancy to its center.

Irene Kopelman, “Landscape’s Morphology Determines its Shape”(2011), fired clay

While visiting Tulsa last weekend, I met with Lauren Ross, the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art at their brand new downtown space. Philbrook Downtown opened on June 14 with 30,000 square feet shaped from a former warehouse in the Brady Arts District, a developing downtown stretch spearheaded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation that includes the recently opened Woody Guthrie Center and other arts destinations. Philbrook itself started in 1939 in a former oilman mansion — the Italian Renaissance-inspired villa of Waite Phillips. Yet while that building is absolutely gorgeous, with a waterfall cascading through a formal garden and rooms with woodworking details flowing through the space, it’s not an ideal place for contemporary art. As Ross explained, the ceilings are low and a fireplace is a permanent fixture of the main museum’s contemporary arts gallery.

William Andrew Pacheco, “Black-and-white Plate (brontosaurus)” (1980s), native clays; Preston Duwyenie, “Black Seed Pot with Silver Inlay” (n.d.), micaceous clay, silver

Maggie Poncho, “Alligator-shaped Effigy Baskey” (1962), pine cone, pine needles, cotton fabric

Philbrook may not have a name that resonates with the whole country, but it’s a leading Midwestern arts center with a strong collection, especially with Native American art. This was fortified with the recent acquisition of the Adkins Collection, which the Philbrook is sharing with the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, and it gets a whole floor of the new two-story Philbrook Downtown. The lower half is dedicated to contemporary art and rotating exhibitions. The whole space has a heavy industrial feel not unlike a rather massive Chelsea gallery, which makes sense as it was designed by Richard Gluckman of Gluckman Mayner Architects, mastermind of the Chelsea galleries like Gagosian, Mary Boone, and Paula Cooper. There aren’t these many types of spaces in Oklahoma, so it will be interesting to see not just how it is incorporated into the evolving downtown arts scene, but the audience it finds as well.

Work by Leonardo Drew

Max Ernst, “Masques (Spies and Leppien 49)” (195), color lithograph; Tony Oursler, “Swathe” (2004), fiberglass sculpture, 2 DVDs, Sony projector, DVD player

Maquette for a sculpture by Adolph Gottlieb

As for its initial exhibitions, it’s a promising showing, with an introductory exhibition called Opening Abstraction that uses that broad theme to bring together contemporary and modern highlights of the Philbrook collection, like art by Clyfford Still, Rachel Whiteread, Max Ernst, and Gary Simmons along with local, but under-recognized nationally, artists like Lee Mullican. Some of these are on view for the first time due to their size or there just not being enough space in the museum. This is flanked by small exhibitions, with an one from the Gottlieb Foundation on Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb’s sculptures, and another on 20th century women artists who worked in the Southwest.

Adolph Gottlieb’s sculptural art

Sarah Bridgland, “Stopftwist Cotton Box (black, white and red)” (2010), paper, enamel paint, found cotton box, glue

Where it goes from here, and how this reincarnation of a once forgotten downtown sustains itself, remains to be seen, but this stalwart of refined art has definitely an opportunity to make a bold breakout from its villa to such an industrial space, and hopefully there will be an audience ready to engage with its art.

Native American art in Philbrook Downtown

Philbrook Downtown (116 E. Brady Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma) opened June 14.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “After the Oil’s Gone: Turning a Boomtown’s Forgotten Downtown into an Arts Center”

  1. I’m so excited to see the downtown branch finally open and I think it’s an admirable effort. The first floor is full of the artists you expect to see at any major museum of modern/contemporary art: Rauschenberg, De Kooning, Morris Louis, and others, but because Tulsa is so late to the game, many of the works shown are minor (I.e. a print from Serra, the metal laser cuts from Whiteread, and some wonky O’keefe drawings) or are very early or late or are just weird (the De Kooning is from 1987 and the Morris Louis has actual brush strokes in it!!!).
    The Gottlieb show on the side is exquisite. It works well in the small space it’s in. Largish paintings are hung high and low and on shelves and plinths there are cardboard, metal, and wood sculptures. This show teaches you how to see the formal ideas in the work when you look at it. It is precise in this way. A formal idea about a curve a circle and a squiggly line happens in cardboard, metal, wood, and painting. The idea changes, but no one work feels like a sketch for another. The works shown allow people who love art and people who have rarely had a chance to see art to clearly see a system of equivalents between materials and dimensions.

    Another thing worth noting is that many of the works hanging in the new space are recent acquisitions, it’s not as if all these works have been gathering dust in the basement of the estate in midtown. This is neither bad nor good. If nothing else, it’s an indicator of what might come from Philbrook if they can keep developing their contemporary collection under the leadership of Lauren Ross (who was, before she came to Philbrook, the curator for the High Line). I’m excited to return home to Tulsa again and again to see how it changes.

    Besides Philbrook, the other major museum, the Gilcrease (which specializes in western American art and has the world’s largest collection of Thomas Moran paintings) opened a branch downtown last year. Philbrook’s space is directly west of it.

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