Gilcrease Museum’s Joe Schenk Plans for Growth

Contributing Writer

EXHIBIT HOST: Gilcrease Museum Executive Director Joe Schenk is ecstatic with the Machu Picchu exhibit and looking forward to even greater days for the world-famous museum.

D. J. MORROW for GTR Newspapers

With the quiet charm of a Southern gentleman and the practical outlook of a mid-westerner, Gilcrease Museum Executive Director Joseph B. Schenk reflects the locales of his upbringing and adult life.

“I was an Air Force brat, but grew up primarily in Wichita, Kansas,” says Schenk. He has spent most of his adult life in the South: Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, with a stint in Indiana where the winters were a bit much for him and his southern wife, Jacque.

“We are enjoying the Tulsa weather,” he says.

Schenk took the reins of the Gilcrease Museum in January 2004, the result of a national search. The museum had been without a permanent executive director since early 2001 when J. Brooks Joyner left the post to take a job with the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.

“The museum has some catching up to do, but we are going at full speed,” he says, pointing to the current exhibit, “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mysteries of the Incas.”

The Tulsa showing of this exhibit, organized by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, is the last stop on a tour that has included Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, Los Angeles and Houston.

Filled with stunning panoramic photographs and the finest surviving examples of Inca art, the exhibition allows visitors to explore Machu Picchu, nested high atop the Andes Mountains in Peru, through the lens of the 1911 “rediscovery” of the site by Yale University archeologist Hiram Bingham.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Gilcrease to host this prestigious exhibit and to allow visitors to view the Museum’s own extensive and impressive collection of archaeological treasures.”

The last gallery in the “Machu Picchu” exhibition includes portraits collected by Thomas Gilcrease in the 1940s and date to the 1700s. Another complement to “Machu Picchu” is the exhibit, “Ancient Americas,” from the Museum’s permanent collection, displaying art and artifacts drawn from other indigenous cultures.

The Gilcrease permanent collection was a key draw to Schenk.

“Gilcrease is a true treasure, not just for Tulsans or Oklahoma, but for our nation,” he says. “It is a stellar collection in an incredible location.”

Overseeing such a collection is part of a career plan that has kept Schenk focused.

“Even as a youth I had an interest in museums and art and took lots of art classes,” Schenk says. “But I was smart enough to realize that I would starve to death if I tried to make a living as an artist.”

In college, Schenk set his eyes on museum administration and never looked back. He earned degrees in museum studies and art education and did post-graduate work in museum management.

He has worked in museums in Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee. He holds a BA in Museum Studies from Huntingdon College (Montgomery, AL) and an MA in Art Education from Ball State University (Muncie, IN).

Schenk did post-graduate study through the Museum Management Institute at the University of California at Berkley in 1986. He served as founding president of the Mobile Area Museums Association (1993-1995), president of the Alabama Museums Association (1996-1998) and Vice President of the Southeastern Museums Conference (2002-2004).

He is active as an American Association of Museums (AAM) Accreditation Team Member, working with other museums seeking accreditation, and was recognized by AAM with one of five national Peer Reviewer Awards in 2002.

Before coming to Tulsa, Schenk served as a museum director at five other museums, the most recent being the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama. There he oversaw a $15.5 million capital campaign that nearly tripled the museum’s size.

Growth is something he would like to see at Gilcrease.

“It is important that we grow at Gilcrease,” he says. “Like many museums, the majority of our collection is in storage, and when we are fortunate to obtain a traveling exhibit such as Machu Picchu, we have to make substantial physical changes to accommodate it.

“I would like to be able to host such exhibits and bring more of the collection into public view.”

An immediate priority for Schenk and Gilcrease is completing the renovation of the Thomas Gilcrease home, which will house the education programming for the museum.

“We recently have hired someone to bolster our education programs, and this summer will host an art camp and classes. That’s an important addition for Gilcrease.”

Other improvements he is overseeing include making the gardens more accessible by redoing the steps and adding handrails. In time, he would like to expand the roadway to allow people to view the gardens from their vehicles.

The museum restaurant, “Osage,” recently underwent new management.

The restaurant serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday and brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. Something new is coffee and desserts from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Updated 04-25-2005

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