Townsend's Background Helps Cowboy Hall's Expansion Continue

Article excerpt

In October 1996, Ken Townsend started planning to retire as chairman and president of what was then Boatmen's First National Bank of Oklahoma. He was 53, so he started looking around for what to do next.

"I knew I wanted to do something for Oklahoma City," said Townsend. "I love this city. It's my home, and it gave me opportunities beyond my dreams. I started at the bottom -- in the mailroom of the old First National Bank and spent 35 years at the First National, First Interstate and then Boatmen's (which was merging with NationsBank)."

Dwight D. Sutherland of Sutherland Lumber was on the boards of Boatmen's and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center at that time. He suggested that Townsend consider replacing Byron Price, who was leaving as executive director of the Cowboy Hall.

"At first, I thought: `I don't know anything about museums.' Byron had done a good job in leading the expansion of the Cowboy Hall, but Sutherland pointed out there was more to be done. The exhibits needed to be completed, and some help was needed in financing. The more I thought about it, the more I figured I could leave a legacy at the Cowboy Hall."

Now, after retiring from the bank in January 1997, Townsend already is leading the Cowboy Hall into a new era after three years at the helm. The museum has raised $15 million to complete a series of spectacular new exhibits with more to come. The exhibits are there for all to see, but they are just the start of the tremendous efforts planned and envisioned under Townsend's leadership.

The most important long-term goal is to build the Cowboy Hall's endowment from $2.5 million to $50 million. The museum also is seeking accreditation from the National Association of Museums, and it is building a research center and an education program for Prix de West Artists to teach painting and sculpture.

"Our big challenge," said Townsend, "is the financing of overhead and operations. No museum exists on the income from admissions. This museum accepts no funds from any government -- federal, state or city. We have to raise money to maintain the museum facility and to operate it.

"That's why we need the endowment -- to insure that the Cowboy Hall will continue to operate forever with a first-class facility."

The accreditation is needed for the Cowboy Hall to reach its goal of becoming nationally recognized as the premier museum of the West. That, of course, will help in raising funds from all over the country.

Developing the Donald C. and Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center is a major effort that has grown out of the museum library. The center, directed by Charles Rand, now has about 22,000 volumes and more than 160,000 images and 750 sound recordings, said Townsend. The Robert E. Cunningham Collection contains nearly 1,300 glass plate negatives.

"We receive more and more inquiries on western history, the cowboy culture and everything connected with frontier and pioneer life," said Townsend. "We want to be the place to go for that information."

The education program is associated with the annual Prix de West Invitational Exhibition and Sale. Of the 105 artists invited to the next event, more than 90 have confirmed they will present their art.

During the latest one, the Cowboy Hall had sales of $6. …