In 1904 in Oklahoma City, with the heyday of women's clubs impacting and changing women's lives throughout the United States, a group formed whose mission was to encourage an understanding of art and art history among its members. First titling themselves the Club Renaissance (later the Art Renaissance Club), they limited their education efforts to the membership. By 1910 several members brought up the idea of a second organization intended to address pubic education, collect works of art, and begin the effort of establishing a museum. The Oklahoma Art League, with that three-fold mission, formed late in October and held their first exhibition less than a month later.
Efforts to secure a permanent location to display their growing collection of paintings and other works of art bore little fruit, although civic leaders regularly mentioned, in lists of annual goals, the value of a museum in making the city attractive to new business. City fathers looked to the Art League to beautify the city with landscaping and outdoor sculpture. The League in turn expected the city to donate a building. Neither entity had the necessary resources.
The League held a great number of exhibitions over the next twenty years in a variety of locations using the name The Experimental Gallery. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 proved a turning point for the institution. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal efforts to turn the country around included establishing art centers in some southern and western states. The entity assigned to Oklahoma City was initially termed the WPA Experimental Gallery because space was shared with the League's displays. The title changed to the WPA Oklahoma Art Center when the government funded a new, larger space, placed under the direction of well-known artist Nan Jane Sheets. Federal involvement provided jobs for artists and gave the Oklahoma City public a new, personal experience with art.
World War II brought an end to the government's sponsorship, but when support for the center ended, local funding efforts kept it alive. It had occupied several locations, and for twenty years it was located in the Municipal Auditorium. In 1958, through an agreement with the city and a principal donor, it moved to a building at Fair Park, on the state fair grounds. The Oklahoma Art Center focused on twentieth-century American painting and photography, and in 1968 a second museum, the Oklahoma Museum of Conservative Art, was formed to exhibit European representational works. Those collections and exhibits were housed and exhibited in locations in Oklahoma City and Nichols Hills before the two museums merged in 1989, adopting the name Oklahoma City Art Museum. An extensive fund-raising effort for a new, state-of-the-art building was undertaken by the museums' director and board of trustees in the mid-1990s. The campaign and building program culminated in March 2002 with the opening of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in a new facility in the center of the business district, where the institution continues to pursue the original vision of its founders.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: "Oklahoma City Art Museum," Oklahoma Art League Vertical Files, Archives, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. "Oklahoma City Art Museum," Vertical File, Downtown Library, Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Jayne Hazleton Campbell
© Oklahoma Historical Society