By EMILY RAMSEY
SCOTT STULEN: Philbrook Museum of Art Director Scott Stulen stands on the second floor of the museum. Behind him is the rotunda’s current yarn installation by acclaimed artist Hottea. Since coming to Philbrook one year ago, Stulen has put into place many new initiatives with more to come, including using the rotunda to display modern art.
EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers
Editor’s Note: Philbrook Museum of Art Director Scott Stulen is one of Greater Tulsa Reporter’s “10 People to Watch in 2017,” as announced in its January 2017 issue. was the first news group in greater Tulsa to introduce “10 People to Watch,” which launched in January 2009.
In keeping step with the changing times, museums are looking for interesting, out-of-the-box ways to draw in new audiences and to improve engagement. Scott Stulen, director of Philbrook Museum of Art, is one who is leading that charge.
“My goal is to break down perceptions of what a museum is for people,” says Stulen, a Minnesota native.
Stulen’s focus on that goal began years ago, as project director with the Walker Arts Center and, most recently, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where he worked as curator of audience experiences and performance, a first-of-its-kind position in the country.
During his time in Indianapolis, Stulen and his team launched over 125 new programs and series that were credited as largely responsible for the museum’s exponential growth and community support. During his time there, museum memberships grew from just over 5,000 to 14,850.
At Stulen’s position with the Walker Arts Center, he gained wide-spread notoriety as creator and producer of the first Internet Cat Video Festival, held in 2012.
The festival drew 10,000 people to the Walker Arts Center, 85 percent of whom had never visited the museum previously, he notes.
The festival went on to travel to 250 cities in 12 countries.
What Stulen achieved with the Internet Cat Video Festival well represents his ongoing goal of making a museum “fun and relevant and breaking down perceptions of what a museum is for people,” he says, an aim that he has brought to Tulsa.
In August, Stulen will celebrate his one-year anniversary with Philbrook.
Stulen is an artist, specializing in paint, sculpture, video and music. He holds a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in painting and drawing.
Although his plan after college was to teach art, after earning his degrees, the opportunities that followed continued to point him toward museums. During his time at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, he began contemplating a future role as museum director.
“I want to impact people and make interesting things happen,” he says. “I have gone from making things to making things happen.”
While he had not yet begun to pursue a museum director position, “the opportunity came (with Philbrook), and you know when it’s the right one.”
Stulen says that he was drawn to both the reality and the potential of Philbrook and of the city that it resides in.
“Philbrook is unique because of its location in a historic home, the collections it holds, its beautiful gardens and its downtown space,” he says. “Few museums in the country have that combination.”
Add to that Tulsa’s cultural offerings, including Gilcrease Museum, its world-renowned ballet company and the coming A Gathering Place for Tulsa, and Stulen’s decision was soon made.
After officially joining Philbrook, Stulen sat down with community members and museum stakeholders “to understand what Tulsa believes in and where it’s going” and to determine the museum’s focus going forward and how they can connect with the needs of the community, he says.
Included in those areas of focus are education, health and wellness, social responsibility, and innovation. “The question is, how can we take our convictions and change them into actions?” he says.
To begin to answer that question, regarding its education initiatives, the Philbrook team recently provided 1,000 area teachers with museum memberships and is working to improve awareness among area teachers regarding its offerings. Starting in September, Philbrook will open earlier on weekdays to allow greater opportunity for teachers and students to visit during the school day.
In order to further its focus on health, Philbrook is using its 8,000-square-foot vegetable garden to provide food for its restaurant, La Villa, to donate produce to local nonprofits, and to create additional learning opportunities. The garden is also home to 16 beehives and a dome that serves as an outdoor classroom.
Stulen expects that by the end of the year, Philbrook will have donated over two tons of produce from its garden to area organizations.
To further drive community engagement, coming to the Philbrook grounds next spring is a stained glass log cabin—a long-time dream project of Stulen’s. For years, Stulen worked with artist Karl Unnasch to find the best location for the cabin.
“When I saw these grounds, I knew we had found the place,” says Stulen.
The cabin will be available for various community uses, including events and classes. Musicians even want to record in it, he says.
“This cabin illustrates the direction that we are trying to move toward—bringing in unique, non-traditional offerings while also tying in the past and the history of museum,” Stulen says.
Coincidentally, Philbrook’s original owner, Waite Phillips, grew up in a log cabin and had drawn a log cabin into the original plans for Philbrook, although Phillips never fulfilled that portion of the plan.
The cabin will be located on the grounds in nearly the same location as where Phillips planned to place it, Stulen says.
Beginning Sept. 1, in addition to opening earlier Tuesday through Friday, the museum will also extend its hours on Fridays in order to incorporate new programs. These Friday evening events include films on the lawn, discussions and, on the second Friday, an adult version of the museum’s second Saturday offerings, something Stulen is especially excited about.
While second Saturdays are geared toward families, with the second Friday events, “we are hoping to attract a younger audience, encouraging them to explore the museum and to be playful, breaking the mold of what people expect to happen at a museum,” says Stulen.