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
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
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
So the questions are:
What has to be done, and how can we do it? …