Acquisition enhances museum’s C.M. Russell Collection

TULSA, Okla. — The University of Tulsa, which manages the world-renowned Gilcrease Museum, has acquired the C.M. Russell Research Collection, which contains more than 13,000 objects that cover a full range of the artist’s life and work. Russell’s biographer, Homer Britzman, gathered the items with the assistance of Nancy Russell, the artist’s widow, following the artist’s death in 1926.

The collection was purchased in September from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The amount of the purchase is not being disclosed. Major donors supporting the acquisition were: The James A. Chapman and Leta M. Chapman Charitable Trust (represented by Sharon Bell and Greg Gray), Mr. and Mrs. Walter Helmerich III, Randi and Fred Wightman, and The Stuart Family Foundation.

“Our acquisition will allow Gilcrease to open new avenues of research into the life and works of one of the American West’s defining artists,” said TU President Steadman Upham. “Having these materials together under one roof will provide unparalleled opportunities for researchers to study the materials in the Russell Research Collection within the context of the masterworks at Gilcrease.”

Much of the Russell Research Collection relates directly to Russell’s art held by the Gilcrease Museum. The new acquisition consists of original sketches and drawings, illustrated letters and envelopes by Russell, volumes of letters to and from Russell, photographs and negatives of Russell and various celebrities, photographs of Russell’s artwork, documentation of artwork, poems by Russell, albums of newspaper clippings and printed ephemera related to Russell, family photo albums, and a variety of personal effects, including paints, brushes, palettes, hand-molded sculptures, Western dress and Indian artifacts.

“The new acquisition, coupled with its existing collection of fine art, gives the Gilcrease Museum the finest collection of Russell material in the world,” said Duane King, director of Gilcrease Museum and TU vice president for museum affairs. Gilcrease has long been recognized as one of the nation’s top museums based on the strength of its collections. Under the management agreement with TU, the museum has been able to advance its mission of fostering discovery and understanding of America’s heritage.

“This acquisition reaffirms our commitment to fully developing Gilcrease’s potential as a research center for scholarship and academic programs that have a truly international reach,” King said.

He also noted that the TU management agreement also has resulted in strategic new additions to the museum’s curatorial and conservation staff, as well as a new master’s degree program in museum science and management that will begin at TU this spring.

The acquisition of the Russell Research Collection is expected to attract candidates for the museum’s scholar-in-residence program, which seeks to bring researchers to Tulsa to study the collection and share their insights via exhibitions, scholarly writing, or public lectures. TU students and faculty also will have opportunities to engage in original research related to the collection.

Researchers will be able to use the Russell Research Collection to gain insights into Russell’s artistic process through the hundreds of sketches and drawings that he used to create his finished works. The body of photographs, acquired or taken by Russell, served as inspirations for his work. As one of the most celebrated Western artists, Russell was the only major painter and sculptor who actually worked on the open range. He also is recognized as one
of America’s most sensitive visual interpreters of Northern Plains Indian life, and his influence continues to be seen in the work of Western artists today.

Sam Gappmayer, CEO and president of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, said the items involved in the sale didn’t match the museum’s mission or collecting policy. The sale to Gilcrease would allow the collection to go to an institution that would preserve it and present it as an active resource to the public, he said.

“The Gilcrease Museum is an ideal home for (the collection),” Gappmayer said. “The museum is well-known for its comprehensive collection of art and artifacts of the American West as well as its significant collection of archival materials, with more than 100,000 items. Now instead of languishing in the FAC storage, the collection will be available to the public, Russell enthusiasts, TU students, faculty, scholars and publishers.”

The material provides an excellent archive on the “business of art” in Russell’s time, particularly his relationship with clients for his fine art as well as his illustrations for magazines and books. The collection documents the efforts of Russell’s wife to maintain her husband’s status in American art.

The collection allows for an inside view of the artist’s personal life through extensive collections of family photographs and documents, while his letters document his extensive friendships with a wide range of people, from local cowboys to Hollywood stars such as Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks.

Additionally, the Russell Research Collection is expected to be the pilot project for the museum’s new electronic cataloguing initiative and digitization effort, which will make Gilcrease art and artifacts publicly accessible online.

Acquisition of the Russell Research Collection will further enhance the upcoming major exhibition, “The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Paintings and Sculpture,” which opens Feb. 6, 2010, at Gilcrease. Organized in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum, the exhibition will provide visitors with a rare opportunity to view some of Russell’s most important artworks.

This will be the first exhibit to show his finest paintings and sculptures and will include more than 30 rarely seen artworks from the Gilcrease permanent collection. A symposium on Charles M. Russell will be held at the Gilcrease Museum Feb. 20, 2010, bringing together the foremost authorities from across the country to speak on the life and times of the artist. The Russell exhibit closes May 2, 2010.