The legacy of Waite Phillips
Seventy-five years after Waite and Genevieve Phillips bequeathed Villa Philbrook to Tulsans, the Philbrook Museum of Art remains an evolving treasure.
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A museum evolving and growing
Philbrook’s inherent charm combined with its mission to engage the community are key factors to its longevity.
“My hope is that we manage to take people from the ordinary to the extraordinary as soon as they come through our front gate,” Suffolk says. “I think that if we’ve developed enough credibility with people to get them to come here, give us their time and spend time looking at an object or experiencing those gardens and forming their own opinion about it, whether they love it or hate it, then we’ve done our job.”
Philbrook has remained far from a static entity through the decades. From early on, studio art classes were offered and a children’s program was incorporated. New wings were added for collection storage as well as to provide space for offices, a museum shop and restaurant, auditorium and conference room.
Earlier this year, the museum took a huge step with the opening of Philbrook Downtown. Located in the old Mathews Warehouse in the Brady Arts District, the two-story, 30,000-square-foot facility was designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects of New York and Tulsa’s Kinslow, Keith & Todd. It features galleries devoted to a semi-permanent installation of modern and contemporary art, and two changing galleries with various works from Philbrook’s permanent collection, as well as the recently acquired Eugene B. Adkins Collection of Native American and Southwestern art on the second floor.
“Philbrook Downtown marks a significant moment in our 75-year history,” Suffolk says. “Not only have we created a new arts destination for domestic and international visitors, we have also established a vibrant forum for engaging dialogue, which adds further dimension to our organization.
“Philbook Downtown will cultivate and engage new audiences as well as enrich the cultural fabric of our community. Creating a space in this part of town lends to our mission by directly contributing to Tulsa revitalization efforts.”
Appealing to more diverse audiences
Like so many Tulsans, Holbrook Lawson’s first experience with the museum occurred when she was introduced to photography through a class taught at Philbrook.
“I was 10 when I took the class and I still have my work,” she says with a laugh. “It was terrible! It turned out that I was better at appreciating art than producing it.”
That childhood encounter, however, inspired her to carry on a family tradition of serving at Philbrook. She is, in fact, a fourth-generation board member of the museum, with a lineage going back to her great-grandparents.
“It’s one of the things that is so fascinating about Philbrook,” says Lawson, the museum’s current board chairwoman. “You had this gift and a vision for it, and now generations of people have been involved and enjoyed it.
“It’s evolving and changing and reaching out to broader audiences all the time. This dynamism is what makes the future of the museum so exciting, especially when you look at our new partnerships and the exhibits and the opening of Philbrook Downtown.”
In particular, Lawson points to growing attendance, especially among minorities who in the past may have faced real or perceived barriers to visiting museums such as Philbrook.
“Art is for all people,” she says. “It knows no color. It doesn’t matter what you look like or your background. All parties are equal through the experience of art.”
Philbrook’s attendance records for this year reflect that about 42 percent of attendees identify as a minority. Meanwhile, the museum also has seen tremendous success with high attendance through its Second Saturdays program, which provides free admission for museum visitors on the second Saturday of each month.
Carrying the spirit of Phillips into the future
Bill Thomas joined Philbrook’s board five years ago and is determined to see that the museum that began with Waite Phillips’ initial gift continues to grow and prosper for another 75 years at least. He and his wife, Susan, will chair the Philbrook Wine Experience, a biennial fundraiser for the museum, for the second consecutive time in 2014.
One of the largest of its kind nationwide, the 2012 Wine Experience grossed $2.4 million.
“It’s too easy to forget that at least 98 percent of Philbrook’s support is derived solely from private sources, meaning memberships, contributions and gift store sales,” Thomas says. “The people who have supported it for the last 75 years have quite a legacy of building an institution of such lasting value. That will move on to those in our future who will surely build on what has happened before, inspired by what an ever-evolving Philbrook can be in our community.”
Thomas cites those such as the late Katie Westby, Bill Flint, Walter Helmerich and John Williams as among those supporters who helped make Philbrook what it is today.
“Our community owes a great debt to them and others whose resolve was matched by generous financial commitments,” Thomas says.
Suffolk believes Philbrook’s future is a bright one as long as the museum remains dynamic and relevant within the Tulsa community.
“There’s a sense of place here,” he says. “I can’t imagine that over the next 75 years we will stop placing value on this campus. It’s too valuable, too historical and too beautiful.”
And what would Waite and Genevieve think of what has become of their gift to Tulsa?
“I think they would feel proud,” Suffolk says. “If they could take a look at how the museum has evolved over the past 75 years, I think they would be thrilled with the role we play in the community and the impact we are having.”
Editor’s note: We’re grateful to Michael Wallis and his book “Beyond the Hills: The Journey of Waite Phillips” as a historical resource for this article.