Connecting the dots
Philbrook’s chief curator improves on the museum’s reputation.
Catherine Whitney joined the Philbrook staff six years ago. She has helped the museum develop several original exhibitions and collaborated on “A Place in the Sun.”
Since 2008, Philbrook Museum of Art has added more than 2,700 works to its collection of American, European, Native American, African, modern and contemporary art. The blazing speed at which the museum has increased its national visibility while enriching the quality of its exhibitions is due in part to Chief Curator Catherine Whitney, who joined the staff six years ago.
Whitney’s expertise in American paintings, modernism and Southwestern art from 1890-1940 is a valuable asset to Philbrook, according to Rita Singer, museum trustee and chairwoman of the collections committee. She says Whitney’s collaborative approach to acquiring new works and developing innovative exhibitions has elevated Philbrook’s reputation as a cooperative partner in the museum industry.
“When we develop original projects to share with partners, it raises our profile,” Whitney explains. “We can offer our expertise and collection strengths while forming new allegiances with private collectors and museums nationwide. Such partnerships can, in turn, lead to greater access to and quality of loans for our visitors to enjoy.”
An ambassador for not only Philbrook, but also Tulsa’s entire arts scene, Whitney has worked with museums and collectors in Phoenix, Denver, Houston, New York City and Washington, D.C., to curate and co-curate shows and contribute to exhibition catalogs. Her partnerships with lending institutions and museums complement Philbrook’s collection of interesting selections that serve a global arts community.
“We have a responsibility to put the bar really high and keep pushing for new ways to inspire Tulsa and the region,” Whitney says.
Her recent projects include “A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Paintings of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings,” a loan exhibition of important Western paintings organized by the Denver Museum of Art. The museum requested Whitney’s expertise as a collaborator on the project, now on display in Philbrook’s Helmerich Gallery.
In addition to her chief curator role, Whitney works alongside three other Philbrook team members as a curator of American art. Originally from the East Coast, she earned degrees in art history and studio art from Bowdoin College and a master’s in art history from the University of Maryland.
“I’m a generalist with a specialty in the Southwest, but growing up in New England I grew to love early colonial portraits and many forms of art,” Whitney says. “I was always drawing as a child, taking notes and looking for the perfect and beautiful.”
Over time, her interests expanded to paintings created by American artists of the early 20th century who moved to the Southwest in search of authentically American subjects. Whitney says she can relate to their western migration; after working at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., she became an art dealer in Santa Fe.
“My interests in western and Southwestern art are the result of the evolution of my career and where I’ve been,” Whitney says.
Now she and her husband, a nonprofit performing arts organizer, and their two children feel they have arrived in the right place at the right time.
“When we moved to Tulsa, I was amazed by the arts community here,” Whitney says. “I work with a smart team of caring and creative people, and the city is growing in literary, performing and visual arts. There’s so much potential. It’s an exciting time to be here.”
Through Aug. 28
“A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Paintings of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings”
10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Thursday. Philbrook Museum of Art, 2727 S. Rockford Road. Call 918-749-7941 or visit www.philbrook.org.