Stelzer: Art Center's Potential Is Regional Museum / 50-Year Old Center Faces Crossroads with Care of Outstanding Private Collection

Article excerpt

About a half century ago, in January 1936, a tiny federal art gallery was opened by the Works Progress Administration in a former storeroom of the old Commerce Exchange Building at 8-A S. Robinson Ave.

It was in the midst of the Great Depression, and people needed cheap or free entertainment and activities. By August, more than 21,000 people visited that gallery, and 143 took free art classes. Sothe gallery was moved to a larger space in the Franklin Building at 120 NW 2nd St.

That was the beginning of the Oklahoma Art Center under the legendary Nan Sheets, who directed it for 30 years primarily as an educational center. The education has grown with classes in dance, sculpture and other arts.

However, Sheets, who retired in 1965, also started a permanent art collection. That collection has grown dramatically to more than 3,000 items valued at millions of dollars, though it's not well known to the general public.

Now, a crossroads has been reached by the Oklahoma Art Center, which has been based at the State Fairgrounds since 1958 in a home built under the generosity and leadership of John and Eleanor Kirkpatrick.

The center must decided what to do about that collection and the facilities needed to protect it. If special care is not taken, the collection will deteriorate, and some items could be lost.

New Executive Director Mary Delle Stelzer leaves no doubt about the potential she sees for the center as well as the collection.

"My goal," she said, "is for the Oklahoma Art Center to become the most important modern (20th century) art museum between Dallas and Minneapolis. We have a good foundation with the private collection.

"We can do it, but it won't be easy.

"It will take a commitment to develop a stable environment for the proper care of our collection. It will take the support of the community, sound management and promotion."

Stelzer's plan is to build on the private collection and its small but debt-free operation with sound management and promotion to develop a museum which would attract art scholars from around the country as well as Oklahoma.

That could start a snowball rolling - increasing the potential of income from grants, attracting more attention, more scholars and more potential for gifts to build the collection, etc.

However, it would require a considerable investment to renovate the current home at the State Fairgrounds or build a new one with up-to-date facilities for the care of art objects.

That sounds extensive when you consider the budget has been scaled back from a peak of about $1 million in 1982 to about $500,000 for the current fiscal year starting July 1. The number of employees is down from 31 to 11. The center operated on an income of $577,435 in the latest fiscal year, and Stelzer is committed to staying within her budget.

Regardless, something must be decided about the care and future of the private collection to protect it. Also, the center's accreditation by the American Association of Museums, acquired in 1973, could well be at risk in current facilities with a new evaluation coming up.

Stelzer's goals, of course, mean money, leadership and expertise, not necessarily in that order.

She can provide the leadership and the expertise in promotion. She is on leave as corporate advertising manager of American Telephone & Telegraph, where she directed AT&T's sponsorship of visual and performing arts programs.

The benefits of an outstanding regional museum are not hard to figure out. It definitely would contribute to the economic development of Oklahoma City as well as to the cultural development of the community and the scholarship of art in general.

Stelzer pointed to the 1984-85 study by the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, showing the arts had a $60.4 million impact on the city economy.

So the questions are:

What has to be done, and how can we do it? …