Even as a relatively new Tulsa resident, there are a number of local cultural institutions with which I am familiar – and of which I am quite fond. Tulsa’s own Philbrook Museum of Art is chief among these, a regional icon, immaculately preserved and curated, and distinctly beautiful, inside and out.
Until recently, however, I was familiar with Philbrook Downtown, in the Brady District, only conceptually and hadn’t taken the opportunity to visit. But an exhibit now winding down there had captured my attention for some time and this week, I took the time to check out the exhibit and the gorgeous Philbrook Downtown. Oh, the exhibit did not let down – on the contrary, it was quite impressive. Still, it was this new Brady landmark that surprised and impressed me the most, instantly elevating it to a site I know I will be spending many long hours at in the years to come.
Now I am even less familiar with architecture than I am with formal interpretation of the arts, and I never have a problem acknowledging my own amateur enthusiast status. But I have seen the world’s great museum and over time, have picked up on the importance of use of space, lighting and flow. The great museums know how to employ these things. Lesser museums do not. Philbrook certainly does on its main campus, and I discovered this week, the same braintrust has applied similar smarts to Philbrook Downtown. Immaculate and gorgeous? You bet. But it is more than that. Downstairs here are segmented rooms, permitting visitors to focus specifically on themed exhibits. Upstairs, though, is more open space, creating a physical, ideological and thematic flow from section to section that takes art and objects the uninitiated might consider related, and deliciously differentiates one category from another. While other museums statewide might carry huge collections of Native American work, Philbrook Downtown clearly explains and differentiates the differences as outside influences impacted on Native American works – and celebrates the artists who broke tradition. What qualifies as Native American art? Must cultural norms be observed for a Native artist to produce art considered “Native American,” or is her ethnic identity and worldview enough? Philbrook Downtown is the first museum I have seen address that issue in depth, and the staff of this incredible institution has little trouble discussing this in equal depth. For art and history aficionados, for those of us in search of a connection to our own Native heritages, it is an incredible and thought-provoking opportunity here.
Yet it wasn’t Philbrook Downtown itself that brought me here. It was the exhibit, Sirens of the Southwest that had been luring me here for months. This impressive exhibit surveys the work of women artists who, in the aftermath of World War I, flocked to the Southwest in search of an authentic American experience. They found it in New Mexico and while Georgia O’Keeffe might be the most famous among these, there were numerous other highly talented women artists who also found artistic inspiration in the color and culture of the American Southwest. While those artists who remained on the East Coast continued to have their perspectives dominated by European culture, these brave women carved out something distinctly American.
While I am a big fan of O’Keeffe, what really appealed to me was the history here. This was the early 20th century. Women still didn’t often travel on their own. Yet O’Keeffe and her contemporaries, seeking authenticity, left the Coast, often on their own, to seek something inspirational and ultimately intrinsically American in the eye-popping beauty of New Mexico and the Southwest. The drive for an authentic artistic experience, away from the influence of staid European style, and perhaps even away from the male-dominated arts world of the Coast, was so powerful it inspired these amazing women to head west.
The history and sociology alone made this a must-see exhibit for me. And then there was the actual art. Overall, I found that the female artists represented in this exhibit had a far better grasp of the color patterns, the patina of this beautiful part of the nation. Male artists tackling similar themes, appeared more focused on representational work, which, while solid works of art, lacked the subtle influence of colors and character represented in the works of the women artists. While O’Keeffe’s minimalism and use of negative space made each of her works worth long study, plenty of other works by her contemporaries here were impressive on their own. Works by Rebecca Salsbury James, Gene Kloss and Gina Knee fleshed out the range of possibility for artists in this situation. Barbara Latham’s delicious characterization in “The Blizzard” and Dorothy Eugenie Brett’s “Golden Autumn” and “Blessing of the Mares” are eye-popping in their depth and capturing of color.
Sirens of the Southwest is an exhibit not to be missed, whether because of the spectacular art, the fascinating back story – or just for the opportunity to visit this relatively new but entirely brilliant addition to Philbrook and to the local arts scene. The exhibit runs through November 10, and if you’re going to make one exhibit wrapping up before the new year, this is the one.
Just don’t forget to see the rest of this incredible museum space while you’re there.
Philbrook and Philbrook Downtown have a number of spectacular exhibits and special events on the horizon, so keep checking back here for advance notice, reviews and leads on how best to enjoy this incredible institution. You’ll be glad you did. And you’ll see me there.
For more information, visit www.philbrook.org.
-Michael W. Sasser is Oklahoma Magazine’s senior editor and an award-winning journalist. For comments or suggestions, reach him at [email protected].