Interviews and photos: National Cowboy Museum remodeling its art galleries this summer
A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Art of storytelling: National Cowboy Museum renovations will help tell a fuller story of the West
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is working on a new chapter, one with fresh, clean pages and opportunities for more authentic, engaging storytelling.
"Fabric-covered walls were all the rage in the '60s, '70s and '80s ... and into the '90s. It was supposed to hide the nail holes and it was supposed to be a sound buffer," said Michael Grauer, the museum's McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture, on a recent afternoon in the Atherton Gallery.
"When they first did it they looked nice ... but the stain marks the spot now. ... So, this is all going to go away."
One of the Oklahoma City's main spaces for exhibiting its permanent collection, the 15,000-square-foot William S. and Ann Atherton Art of the American West Gallery is closed through while undergoing its first remodel since it opened in 1996. The William S. & Ann Atherton Foundation provided the financial support to make the renovation possible, said Seth Spillman, the museum's chief marketing officer.
"The Atherons were a part of it from the very beginning and are generously helping us yet again to move forward in a way that we wouldn't otherwise be able to. You take all the art off, and it gives you the opportunity to stop and think how do you really want to put it back up," Spillman said.
"There's no perfect time to do something like this ... so I make the analogy of just ripping the band-aid and going ahead and doing it. ... We're doing our best to limit the impact on the visitor experience by moving very quickly to get things back up."
Usually the home to some of the museum's signature works by the likes of Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Albert Bierstadt, W.R. Leigh and Charles Schreyvogel, the Atherton Gallery will be closed through August. It is slated to reopen by Labor Day weekend, when the museum this year is hosting its Chuckwagon Festival.
The neighboring Kerr and Silberman galleries also are closed due to the renovations.
"Normally, a reinstallation like this is a couple of years, and we're doing it in two months," Grauer said.
The renovation will remove the chunky oak buttresses that dominate the space and cover the outdated fabric-covered walls with sheet-rocked walls that will be painted in colors like the Roycroft Rose Remington used in his studio and the Sheraton Sage favored by Russell.
"It's like being inside a gothic cathedral, and it all competes with the art. ... All this heavy oak stuff - adios," Grauer said.
"What we're going to do here is use historic colors that are germane to the period and/or the artist. For example, we know what Remington painted the walls in his studio, we know what color. Same thing with Russell, same thing with Schreyvogel. So, each room will have its own color specific to that period or that particular artist. ... The whole idea is that it's experiential. When you're in a gallery, you know you're in a new space and in a whole new storyline."
The shades of Toile Red, Gallery Green and Morris Room Grey are from the Sherwin Williams Historic Collection.
"From a visitor experience ... the colors, I think, will be an obvious and exciting new thing," Spillman said. "The galleries previously in their layout were more based on the artist, and now it will be more based on the themes that this museum uses to tell the story of the West: land, people and animals."
Art of storytelling
Although the gallery features masterworks by renowned Western artists, Grauer said the remodeled space will focus on telling a fuller story of the American West.
"My philosophy here since I came aboard - and I've known the collection a long time because I've been coming here for 35 years - is that the National Cowboy Museum is a history museum with an art collection. Bottom line, it's not an art museum, and the art that we show should be storytelling art - and it should be interpreted that way. That's not always been the case. So, the words on the wall that you're used to seeing, they're going to talk about story: Story first, artist second, not the other way around," he said.
The remodeled gallery will strategically showcase what are known as material culture objects, connecting historic items from the museum's collection to the stories told by its paintings. For instance, visitors might see exhibited with Schreyvogel’s "The Skirmish Line" a Plains Indian pipe bag and a canteen as seen in the painting, while a U.S. Army McClellan saddle might be displayed alongside Walter Ufer’s "At Rest," which depicts that saddle in use.
"From a visitor standpoint, that's kind of the exciting new thing here, not just that dirty cloth is gone. You're going to have a different experience with the art than you did previously, and it's going to tie in," Spillman said. "It's not going to just be siloed that this is the cowboy artifacts side, this is the Native American side, this is the art side. The art is going to help tell that fuller story by having material culture right next to it. ... And it's exciting to think about that."
Along with material culture objects, Grauer said the renovated gallery will spotlight more of the museum's vast sculpture collection.
"This is the largest collection of sculpture of the American West in the world ... because of the Russell collection and the Remington collection and then you bring in all the other sculpture," he said. "There is no other institution can even come close to the depth and breadth of the Western sculpture collection in this institution - and nobody knows that. ... So, that's going to find its way into here."
Not only will the storytelling become more vivid, but Grauer said the renovated space also will create a more complete narrative of the diversity of the West.
"Our collection cannot do that ... the way it was installed. A Black person could not walk in here and see someone that looked like them, not in the art galleries. They will after this. Likewise, a brown-skinned person could not walk in here and see someone who looked like them; they will after we're done. So, that connection and engagement could not occur in here. It just couldn't. And now we can," Grauer said.
"Our 18th-century Spanish harinero - a flour box - tells a particular story. Not only is a new type of furniture on the frontier, but also it will be in relationship to the Spanish and Mexican story."
The revamped gallery also will feature a significant new acquisition, the painting "Fernando Roped One of the Bears and His Brother Caught Another," by William Herbert Dunton (1878-1936), whom Grauer called "one of the major figures in Western art." It depicts two Mexican cowboys, or vaqueros, encountering the apex predator on the Western frontier: the grizzly bear.
"The story about the cowboy is about the rope and not the gun. With that particular painting, because these two Mexican vaqueros are not armed with firearms, they have to use their best tool. And the best tool for a cowboy is a rope," Grauer said.
"We're the National Cowboy Museum; we tell the cowboy story. ... Now, with this painting, that's a story we can tell very specifically. ... There was wildlife out here that nobody had ever seen before, and you had to deal with it."
TO KNOW MORE
For more about the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, go to nationalcowboymuseum.org.