Richardson Asian Art Museum a Tulsa Fascination

Contributing Writer

ORIENTAL GALLERY: The two-story gallery displays treasures from throughout Asia, though about 90 percent of the collection is from China. Visitors are fascinated by the many artifacts.

GTR Newspapers photo

There’s nothing like going to a museum, wandering through the antique suits of armor, gazing in wonder at ancient weaponry, seeing works of art completed before Columbus set sail. Yes, there’s nothing like a stroll through the past.

At the Richardson Asian Art Museum one can stroll through the present, or at least if not the present the very near past; almost every item in it was made within the last half-century. Located at 4770 S. Harvard Ave., it reflects not only a love of Chinese culture but also the passion of a man who was once a giant in Tulsa and Oklahoma medical circles.

Dr. Jack Richardson gained his love of the art of the Far East while serving as an orthopedic surgeon in the region during World War II. After the war he settled in Tulsa where he became, at various times, Chief of Staff at St. John’s Hospital, the same position with the Junior League’s Hospital for Convalescent Children, president of the Tulsa Surgical Society and president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. He retired from his practice in 1979 and spent many of his remaining years (he died last year) in the Far East visiting hospitals and clinics to look at their medical services.

In his travels “he would often be the first off the boat or plane looking for Asian art treasures,” says Richardson Museum curator Rick Hammer. “He was a most enthusiastic collector. He was fascinated by the intricacies and design skills of Asian art.”

But unlike Charles Foster Kane of movie fame, Richardson wasn’t content to keep his trove tucked away in boxes. “He wanted to share Asian culture with Tulsans, so he put aside some money to build a building or his collection. This is what you see around you.”

Richardson’s widow, Joni, is the founder of the museum and serves as chairman of its board.

The site Hammer describes is really a one-time funeral parlor and then real estate office that has been modified. On the ground level are a series of art works ranging from vases to sculpture to a magnificent jade sailing ship. On the second level, which can only be viewed through windows from the ground level, there is a collection of vases that cry out for closer inspection.

“We have about half his collection on display now in our current facilities, which totals around 1,500 square feet,” says Hammer. “We hope to eventually expand to about 4,500 square feet and have all his collection easily accessible.”

The Richardson Asian Museum, while a tax-free institution, is going to have to sustain itself. Lacking friends with deep pockets, how does Hammer plan to keep it open?

“We own the building so rent is not a problem. We hope to open a tearoom of about 1,500 square feet and devote another 150 square feet or so to a gift shop.

“That doesn’t sound like much, but we plan to attract people through the Internet. According to the New York Times, three-fourths of the people who ‘visit’ the Metropolitan Museum of Art never set foot inside the museum; they visit by pictures on the Internet.”

The Internet, he says, will vastly expand that tiny gift shop. “We can act as the middleman between the customer and the Asian artist. If we get an order for an item we can find it and ship it to the buyer. That’s how we plan to fund our needs, also along with the usual fund-raising efforts.”

In the meantime, the Richard Asian Art Museum is busy establishing its cultural roots in Tulsa. While the Asian population of Tulsa is small (about 2,000-3,000 of Chinese extraction, according to Yuh Tam Chang, secretary of the Chinese-American Association of Tulsa), the museum is already reaching out to broaden itself beyond being a mere exhibition hall.

Recently a hundred or so people gathered for a Chinese language competition, sponsored by the Chinese consulate in Houston. The youngsters were pitted in tests ranging from Chinese tongue twisters to chopstick skills (how many marbles do you think you could pick up with chopsticks in a given timeframe?).

Kay Miller, a retired English teacher at Tulsa Community College, has been studying Asian culture for a dozen years and was at the Chinese competition. Her impression of the artwork on display?

“It’s a beautiful collection, well worth spending some time seeing. It’s most impressive.”

Hammer admits no one is quite sure what the collection is worth, “but an appraisal in 1999 put its value then at about $1 million.”
The Richard Asian Museum is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Updated 05-30-2006

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