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Greater Tulsa Reporter

Susan Neal Leads Gilcrease During Time of Growth

Contributing Editor

UNIVERSITY OF TULSA EXECUTIVE: Susan Neal, executive director of Gilcrease Museum and vice president for public affairs for the University of Tulsa, stands in an exhibit hall at Gilcrease Museum. Neal took the role in September 2017, and will oversee the $65-million renovation.

EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers

Editor’s Note: Susan Neal, executive director of Gilcrease Museum and vice president for public affairs for the University of Tulsa, is one of Greater Tulsa Reporter’s “10 to Watch in Greater Tulsa 2018,” as announced in its January 2018 issue. GTR was the first news group in Greater Tulsa to introduce “10 People to Watch,” which launched in January 2009.

Susan Neal holds strong ties to both Tulsa, as a native daughter, and to Gilcrease Museum—she was married there. Add to that her broad range of professional experiences, and she becomes the ideal candidate to lead Gilcrease Museum during a time of change as it grows new programming and prepares for a $65-million renovation.

Neal was appointed executive director for Gilcrease in September 2017. She also holds the role of the University of Tulsa’s vice president for public affairs, research and economic development.

Neal’s professional life, largely, of political service had its small beginnings long ago, she says. Her parents’ joint interest in local activism contributed to her community interest. She was active in student office in high school and served on the youth advisory board for then-Tulsa Mayor Robert LaFortune.

Neal earned her political science degree from Oklahoma State University, and she attributes her first trip to Washington, D.C., which took place during her senior year of college, as setting her on her path of politics in the nation’s capital. After graduating college, she spent eight years working on Capitol Hill as chief of staff for U.S. Representative Mickey Edwards and as a House and Senate lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Those years working with legislative issues and public policy provided her much experience that would serve her very advantageously in the years to come, she notes.

After returning to Tulsa due to her husband’s job and her family’s Tulsa roots, she took the role of vice president of marketing for Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, a business organization for downtown development and advocacy.

The role “allowed me to take my previous work at the federal level and bring it to the state and local level,” Neal says.

Her position allowed her to immerse herself in both downtown Tulsa, an area that she loves, and all aspects of the community, including the philanthropic and non-profit worlds and city government. She played a role in the passing of legislation that allowed for TIF (tax increment financing) districts, which have largely contributed to downtown’s redevelopment, she says.

Following seven years in that role, Neal moved into motherhood and began a public relations firm before running for two successful city council terms. She, later, led the JumpStart early childhood education program with the Community Service Council and worked in both the Kathy Taylor and Dewey Bartlett administrations as director of community development and education.

During Neal’s time in Taylor’s administration, she was tasked with assessing the city’s management system for Gilcrease, as Gilcrease is owned by the City of Tulsa. Her research included looking into the management of municipally-owned museums around the country, and she found that the management “usually involved bringing in a likeminded partner or the creation of a separate trust to oversee the museum,” she says.

As it would turn out, TU soon surfaced as a viable partner for the museum, and a partnership officially began in July 2008.

“TU has done a great job of conserving Gilcrease’s archives and has been a good steward of the collection,” Neal says.

Just how large is Gilcrease’s collection?

Gilcrease holds over 400,000 historical documents and anthropological artifacts—“the largest collection of Americana artifacts in the world that has been owned by one person,” says Neal. The museum’s archival collection ranges from 1494 to the present.

With the breadth of its collection, Gilcrease has many narratives to tell but needs a proper space to do it, Neal adds. Yet, Gilcrease has not seen a renovation in over 30 years.

It was in 2014, when Neal was serving as Gilcrease’s interim executive director, that she began to think about proposing the possibility of including Gilcrease in the upcoming Vision Tulsa package.

James Pepper Henry was named Gilcrease’s executive director in 2015, and he played a role in getting Gilcrease included in the Vision Tulsa package that was subsequently passed in 2016.

After Henry resigned from Gilcrease in 2017, Neal once again took the helm as interim executive director.

“Her interim leadership of the museum in recent years during two transitions have made it clear to the TU community and its Board of Trustees that the person we need at the helm of the museum is none other than Susan Neal,” said TU President Gerard Clancy when announcing her promotion.

“When the executive director position came available again,” says Neal, “the Gilcrease advisory board was thinking about what skill sets are needed to be in place at this unique time for the museum.

“I have managed institutions, and I speak the City of Tulsa, Gilcrease and TU.”

Currently, Neal and Gilcrease are focused on increasing its community engagement and public programming. Gilcrease After Hours was recently launched, taking place on the fourth Friday of the month with cocktails and cultural activities. In July, Gilcrease opened “T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America,” a traveling exhibit running through Oct. 7 that explores the works of T.C. Cannon, who is considered one of the most influential and inventive Native American artists of the 20th century.

Additionally, Gilcrease is focused on moving forward with the planned 100,000-square-foot Vision renovation. Because the project itself will be handled by the City of Tulsa, we want to hand over a plan that will show the city how our collection can be best utilized, Neal says.

That Interpretive Plan, to be created by Gallagher and Associates, will look at the museum’s collection in order to create an improved visitor experience, determine the stories behind the collection and assess the best use of space for the collection, she continues.

“Gilcrease has an extraordinary reputation around the world because of its collection. We want to continue to grow that awareness,” she says.

Updated 07-23-2018

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