By EMILY RAMSEY
GROWING TOURISM: James Pepper Henry became Gilcrease Museum’s executive director in 2015, with one of his immediate goals to update and expand the museum through the Vision Tulsa package. With Vision Tulsa’s overall passage in April, Gilcrease will undergo a $65 million expansion.
Courtesy Gilcrease Museum of Art
Editor’s Note: Gilcrease Museum’s Executive Director James Pepper Henry is one of Greater Tulsa Reporter’s “10 People to Watch in 2016,” as announced in its January 2016 issue. was the first news group in greater Tulsa to introduce People to Watch, which launched in January 2009.
Throughout the year, will publish a series of articles featuring each of its “10 People to Watch,” with next month’s issue to feature Jenks Mayor Kelly Dunkerley.
Although Gilcrease Museum Executive Director James Pepper Henry always planned to one day return to Oklahoma, a state that sits close to his heart, the circumstances that brought his return caught him a bit by surprise.
“While I had in my mind that I would one day end up back in Oklahoma, I didn’t anticipate that I would return as director of Gilcrease, a place that I have always revered and respected as one of the great American museums,” says Henry, who was named executive director in 2015.
Henry comes to Gilcrease Museum from the Heard Museum in Phoenix where he had served as director and since 2013. At his direction, the Heard developed the BUILD!: Toy Brick Art at the Heard exhibition, which was the most successful summer exhibit in the museum’s history, increasing museum attendance by 58 percent and memberships by 150 percent. Today noted BUILD! as one of its top 10 must-see exhibits in summer 2014.
Previously, Henry spent six years at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, where he oversaw the completion of the museum’s $110 million, 80,000-square-foot expansion.
Henry also played a major role in the establishment and launch of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that opened to the public in 2004, and for 10 years, he served as an associate director of the museum.
Henry was born in Portland, Oregon, but, as he grew up, made yearly trips to Oklahoma with his mother and grandparents for the annual Kaw Nation powwow.
Henry’s maternal grandmother is Muscogee (Creek) Indian, and his maternal grandfather is Kaw. In 1835, his grandmother’s family came to Oklahoma on the Creek Trail of Tears, and in 1873, his grandfather’s family came to Oklahoma.
“Every time we visited Oklahoma, my grandparents always took us to Gilcrease Museum and other cultural sites including Philbrook Museum of Art, Woolaroc and the Will Rogers Memorial Museum,” he says.
Yet, of all of the cultural areas to visit, Gilcrease Museum was always the most anticipated, perhaps due to the history that Henry’s family holds with Thomas Gilcrease, the founder of Gilcrease Museum.
It’s believed that Henry’s great-grandfather (James Childers, a Muscogee (Creek) Indian) was acquainted with Thomas Gilcrease. Childers had known Geronimo during Geronimo’s imprisonment at Fort Sill. Later, Geronimo gave Childers four of his personal items: a beaded cane, a beaded vest, beaded moccasins and an Apache golden eagle feather headdress.
“I think all four items were at one time on display at Gilcrease, possibly in the 1950s,” Henry says.
Passed down through the generations and currently in Henry’s possession are Geronimo’s headdress and beaded cane, both items that Henry hopes to put back on display at Gilcrease in celebration of the museum’s forthcoming Vision Tulsa expansion project.
Thomas Gilcrease, who was of Muskogee (Creek) descent, opened the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa in 1949 with an already extensive collection of art, artifacts and archives largely revolving around Native Americans, the American west and colonization. His art collections included works by Charles M. Russell, Thomas Moran, Winslow Homer, Henry Kirke Brown, George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller and Thomas Eakins, among others.
The museum’s archives are now housed in the Helmerich Center for American Research and considered to be one of the country’s most extensive collections of rare books, documents, maps and unpublished materials related to the history of North America. Items include one of the only known original handwritten and signed copies of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln, documents related to Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and Christopher Columbus, the John Ross papers, and the recently-acquired Bob Dylan archive.
“Gilcrease is the perfect combination of American history, American art and American Indian culture; they all come together here,” Henry says.
“But I don’t think it has ever had the publicity or the proper venue to help elevate it to the level it deserves,” he continues, a truth that Henry has been set on changing since he joined the museum last year.
As soon as he took his position, he began working towards the creation of a proposal to have Gilcrease Museum included in the Vision Tulsa proposal.
“I brought in a consultant to determine what Gilcrease needed to be successful and to become a world-class facility,” he says.
Henry’s efforts proved fruitful in that the museum’s $65 million expansion project was added to Vision Tulsa’s Proposition 3, which passed in April.
Once the expansion is complete, the benefits will be far-reaching, promises Henry.
“Vision Tulsa is (providing us) a great opportunity to elevate Gilcrease to one of the top 10 museums in the country,” Henry says. “Our goal is to bring people from around the world, to have Gilcrease be an anchor for tourism.”
The project will involve a general reconfiguration of the museum’s floorplan to create an improved visitor experience, expanded and more convenient parking, and the creation of a Grand Entry atrium that will usher guests into the museum, an entrance that Henry promises will “create a sense of awe and discovery.” The Grand Entry will also serve as an area to be used for events, large enough to hold upwards of 1,000 people.
With the museum’s location at the top of the Osage Hills, Henry would like to see the museum “build upwards so that the museum has a better view of downtown and so people can see us from downtown, like a beacon on a hill.”
Other planned additions include a casual cafe on the museum’s lower level, movement of the restaurant to a higher floor in order to provide more expansive views of the Osage Hills and downtown Tulsa, a 12,000-plus-square-foot signature traveling space to accommodate large traveling exhibits, and an expanded children’s area.
“Gilcrease is Tulsa’s most valuable asset,” Henry says. “I want to see Gilcrease reach its full potential; our facility needs to match the prestige of our collection.”