A couple months ago, we reviewed the Gilcrease Museum’s exhibit, “Rick Bartow: The Things You Know But Cannot Explain.” The exhibit’s contemporary and abstract quality are in striking contrast to the other exhibits in the museum. The Gilcrease has long been a champion of western American art in the mid-west, but the museum is getting ready to turn the page. Laura Fry, the new Curator of Art, sat down with me to talk about her plans for the Gilcrease, as well as trends she is seeing in curating and of course, her masters program!
Since arriving at the Gilcrease Museum in December, Fry was struck by how extensive the Gilcrease’s collections are, especially American paintings from across history. There are masterworks from colonial Mexico to the 20th-century Ashcan school to sitting in the vault and Fry wants to find new ways to tell their stories in the context of the Gilcrease.
“My goal is to find universal themes in an artist’s work that anyone can relate to… but also, to find threads that strike interest in our visitors.”
Fry’s curating approach was influenced by her master’s program but also her work with other professionals at the Denver Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and Tacoma Art Museum.
“[Artist] William R. Leigh left to go art study in Europe by himself at age 16, that’s crazy. As a curator, I want to place visitors in his shoes. Going to Germany by himself—that was so brave. I want people to understand what it would have been like for people in these situations.”
But the word “curator” is getting a liberal usage these days. When I ask about it, she laughs it off. “I think it’s funny.” She quickly pulls up a Tumblr page, whenyouworkatamuseum.com, which pokes fun at the most humorous aspects of museum life. But this points to the blurring line between professional and participant. Museums are beginning to seek visitor participation in new ways, including visitor-created content.
“Visitors are being encouraged to create their own opinion. Artwork is intentionally subjective and museums have no business telling people which artworks are ‘good’ or ‘beautiful,’ but should rather give visitors a context for artwork and then encourage them to form their own viewpoint.”
As far as visitor engagement, some museums are being more thoughtful than others. Fry points to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle as an example of how to increase visitor participation and encourage co-creation between professionals and visitors.
“The Frye Art Museum crowd-curated an exhibit, ‘#SocialMedium,’ from their permanent collection of 19th-century European paintings. They posted artworks on social media and you could vote on which ones you wanted in an exhibit…everyone who participated was considered a co-curator. That is something I would maybe like to try here.”
Fry points out how the perception of the Gilcrease is that it never changes but more community engagement could change that perception. With the Gilcrease collections about to go online and a potentially a huge building expansion, there will be more opportunities to display the unique collections as well encourage visitor participation. But as a far as the role of the professional curator goes, Fry thinks it’s all about crafting that overarching narrative—creating the threads that tie these objects together.
“We have opportunities to see how community input can augment and drive a narrative—but it’s critical to know the collections well enough to know where to start. It is also important to see how some of these particular pieces would work with particular communities, and to ensure we are serving a broad audience.”
Fry built her content background in the University of Denver’s master’s program. Hailing from Ohio, Fry received her BFA in studio art and ceramics, with minors in art history and American culture studies from Washington University in Saint Louis. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Fry considered her options.
“I discovered quickly that with just a bachelor’s degree, you are not a competitor for most museum jobs, you need a master’s degree.”
While considering a master’s program for exhibition design, a former professor suggested a more content focused program, such as art history. So Fry packed up and headed out to Denver, where she spent two years working on a master’s degree from the University of Denver in art history and museum studies.
“The content-focused art history program gave me more flexibility. And with the museum studies component, I began to understand more about collections management, conservation, and registration…It was good to see how professionals work. My master’s program gave me an understanding of the field that I didn’t previously have… During undergrad I gained an interdisciplinary background, but in grad school I found more job-specific skills.”
Fry eventually went on to work at several renowned museums including the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the Tacoma Art Museum before moving to Tulsa with her husband, Jason Jones. And Tulsa suits Fry and Jones just fine! In fact, Tulsa’s art industry is the reason the couple moved here.
“Tulsa is very supportive of the museum community. The city is investing in itself and showing a strong sign of commitment to urban development. Tulsa is bettering the community, instead of letting places slide downhill.”
Fry was surprised to see how many people attended the Brady Art’s District’s First Friday event, even in the cold rain. Tulsa’s vibrant art community bodes well for Gilcrease’s new transition. Between the Gilcrease’s Zarrow educational center downtown, the new Helmerich Center for American Research, and the launch of their online collections, Gilcrease is poised to make a strong comeback.