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About Thomas Gilcrease’s Collection

Gilcrease Museum founder Thomas Gilcrease was a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, with a Scottish father and a mother of Muscogee (Creek) heritage. At age nine, Gilcrease was enrolled in the Tribe. When the federal government dissolved tribal land ownership as a result of the Dawes Act, Gilcrease received an individual allotment of 160 acres in Glenpool, Oklahoma. While the allotment system was often devastating for Native peoples, by happenstance Gilcrease’s allotment was in the region of the first major discovery of petroleum in Oklahoma. With newfound oil wealth at a young age, Gilcrease pursued an education at Bacone Indian University and later founded his own oil exploration company in 1922.

Financial success provided Gilcrease with opportunities to travel, and in 1925 he embarked on a European tour. Influenced by sumptuous museums and Old Master art collections across Europe, Gilcrease began to build his own art collection. Rather than focusing on European art, he looked to his own Native heritage for inspiration and aspired to create a museum and library celebrating achievements of American history and art. He worked with art dealers to help locate works, and often purchased entire collections as well as single acquisitions. During the 1930s Gilcrease made steady additions to his collection, which broadened from paintings and sculpture to include rare books, manuscripts, ethnography, and archaeology from across North America.

For his collection of painting and sculpture, Gilcrease sought examples by America’s most influential historic artists from the 1600s to the early 1900s—with an emphasis on images of Native Americans and the American West. At the same time, he collected works by numerous contemporary artists from Mexico, the American Southwest, and Oklahoma. In particular, Gilcrease championed and supported contemporary Native artists in the mid-20th century, and established an artist-in-residence program to add contemporary Native artworks to the museum collection.

Gilcrease also became interested in anthropology and acquired large collections of ancient objects from across North America. To preserve objects made by ancestors of southeastern Tribal peoples now residing in Oklahoma, Gilcrease built an extensive collection of Mississippian archaeology from the central and southeastern United States. With the broad scope of antiquities he collected from across the continent, Gilcrease demonstrated that the history of North America does not begin (or end) with European contact.

His thirst for knowledge and desire to educate the public went beyond collecting art and anthropology, and Gilcrease also acquired archive materials that provide a rich context for the overall collection. Once again, he often sought to purchase entire collections of materials, including manuscripts, books, drawings, photographs, and maps covering colonial periods in North America, the birth and development of the United States, and histories of Tribal Nations in Oklahoma.

The legacy of Thomas Gilcrease’s vision endures today. His unique collection is grounded in his identity as a Native person who was shaped by his dual heritage. Today, with increasing public desire to better understand the histories of Native peoples in the context of sweeping political and cultural events, Gilcrease’s collection is more valuable than ever before.