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A Concise History of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

Chester Arthur Reynolds In 1948, Chester Arthur Reynolds (1887-1958) was so impressed with the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma that the experience prompted him to ask the question, why not build a Hall of Fame honoring cowboys, cattlemen, and ranchers.

The question set the planning in motion. On July 20, 1953, Reynolds formally announced that he would invite governors of the seventeen western states, prominent cattlemen, and leaders in the sport of rodeo to serve on the Board of Trustees of a "shrine" to be called the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum. On June 28, 1960 the Board of Trustees would change the name to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. This change was made ostensibly by the Board "to better explain the purposes of the organization originally planned by Mr. Reynolds."

During January 20-21, 1955 the Board's first organizational meeting was held and a site selection committee was formed to narrow the field of 46 cities desiring the museum. By March three finalists were selected: Dodge City, Kansas; Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. On April 16, 1955, the Board met in the conference room of the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and, after two ballots, Oklahoma City was voted as the site. An "idea" meeting was held at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City on September 28, 1955. On November 11, 1955 the 37-acre site on Persimmon Hill, donated by Oklahoma City, was dedicated with Will Rogers, Jr. as the master of ceremonies. A dedication banquet was held at the Biltmore Hotel in Oklahoma City. So, November 11, 1955 is the official dedication date of the Museum.

Ground Breaking for the Museum In 1956 Governor Raymond Gary mounted a fund-raising drive to raise $1 million for the Hall and by April 22, three-fourths of that amount had been raised. By February 22, 1957 an architectural competition was underway with the approval of the committee on architectural competitions of the American Institute of Architects. Among the competition guidelines presented were that the building should "strive to encourage the interest in the cowboy as epitomizing some of the finer qualities of the American citizen...Though the cowboy's existence as such was relatively short-lived, his is an era that is almost unique in American history and one which is deserving in perpetuation."

On August 5, 1957 the United States Congress recognized the Hall through a Senate Resolution (No. 32) "as a memorial to individuals who have made outstanding contributions in the opening and development of the West." On January 7, 1958 ground breaking ceremonies occurred coincident with the national convention of the American National Cattlemen's Association. Chester A. Reynolds greeted those gathered and Governor Raymond Gary and Allen Street (the mayor of Oklahoma City) made the presentation. Ruby Nance and his Rodeo Band provided the music. The architectural design of Jack Begrow and Jack Brown of Birmingham, Michigan for the 70,000-square-foot museum had won the competition over 257 architects from 39 states. Construction began, but soon the man with the vision, Chester A. Reynolds, died on December 11, 1958.

By 1962 the construction had halted due to lack of finances. To complete the Hall, arrangements were made with the Oklahoma City Industrial and Cultural Facilities Trust to sell $1.2 million in bonds on August 24, 1964 causing the Trustees to give up title to the building and the land. (Title to the buildings and the land was regained on July 1, 1972). On June 26, 1965 the Hall was opened at a cost of $2.5 million with Dean Fenton Krakel, hired in November 1964, as the Hall's first Executive Director.

Museum Construction By the mid-1980s, the Hall was suffering from diminishing revenues and its leadership was called into question.  By March 1, 1985 the Board of Trustees demoted Dean Krakel to Curator and then Paul Strabaugh was appointed Director. In May the Hall went into receivership with first Chancellor E. T. Dunlap then Governor Henry Bellmon acting as receivers. In June 1986 the court appointed John C. Andrews the Hall's final receiver. On January 1, 1987 B. Byron Price began his ten-year tenure as Executive Director which ended on December 1, 1996. By the summer of 1992 the museum joined eight other museums in a consortium called "Museums West." Also in 1992 the "Visions of the West" $35 million capital campaign was launched with the desire to triple the museum's size and programming by 1995 increasing the size to over 230,000 total square feet. On October 15, 1993 President George Bush formally dedicated the expansion site.

Dates to remember:

  • June 21, 1994: James Earle Fraser's "End of the Trail" moved to present location in the glass pavilion
  • Autumn 1994: Hollis Williford's Sculpture, "Welcome Sundown" at museum's entrance
  • November 9, 1994: Sam Noble Special Events Center dedicated
  • June 9, 1995: Robert L. and Grace F. Eldridge Gallery dedicated - 2,200 square feet
  • November 21, 1995: Gerald Balciar's "Canyon Princess" officially unveiled
  • Summer 1996: The Museum had a presence on the Internet through the International Museum of the Horse
  • September 21, 1996: Arthur and Shifra Silberman Gallery opened
  • October 19, 1996: Children's Cowboy Corral opened
  • November 8, 1996: Wilson Hurley's five triptychs "Windows on the West" are dedicated at Sam Noble Special Events Center
  • November 1997: Norma Sutherland Garden and William S. & Ann Atherton Garden open
  • Summer 1997: Nona Jean Hulsey Rumsey Art Education Center opened
  • September 1997: Research Center (later named the Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center) opened
  • November 18, 1997: Dub & Mozelle Richardson Theater dedicated
  • April 4, 1998: Glenna Goodacre's "After the Ride" Ronald Reagan sculpture unveiled
  • Autumn 1998: Dining on Persimmon Hill restaurant opened
  • January 16, 1999: "The Year of the Cowboy" launched
  • September 11, 1999: First annual Traditional Cowboy Arts Association exhibition and sale
  • November 19, 2002: Blair Buswell's "Will Penny" Charlton Heston bronze unveiled
  • May 31, 2006: The Glenn D. Shirley Western Americana Collection acquired
  • June 9, 2006: Harold Holden's "Edward L. Gaylord" sculpture unveiled
  • July 28, 2007: Ed Fraughton's "John Wayne" bronze unveiled
  • November 17, 2007: Updates of the American Cowboy Gallery through the Phil Stadtler Fund revealed

Museum Celebration In the Edward L. Gaylord Exhibition Wing (28,000 square feet):

  • September 10, 1999: The American Cowboy Gallery, The American Rodeo Gallery, & Prosperity Junction opened
  • April 28, 2000: The Joe Grandee Museum of the Frontier West opened
  • October 19, 2000: The Joe Grandee Museum of the Frontier West and the Native American Gallery dedicated
  • April 2002: The Weitzenhoffer Gallery of Fine American Firearms dedicated
  • April 12, 2003: The Western Performers Gallery opened

On July 24, 2000, after a two year process, the museum achieved AAM accreditation and in November the museum's board of directors approved changing the museum's name from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Executive Director Ken W. Townsend explained that the institution had evolved from a Hall of Fame and Heritage Center to an acclaimed art and historical museum: "We want the name of the facility to fully encompass the story it tells." Before the end of 2000, the museum launched a campaign to raise $100 million for its endowment. Coincidentally with the accreditation process, the museum's first long range plan was completed in 1999 and was reexamined and revised over the course of several years.

Aerial view of Museum Having begun his tenure as Executive Director on January 15, 1997, Ken Townsend died on August 8, 2001. Between August 9, 2001 and March 3, 2002 Martin C. Dickinson served as interim director until Charles P. Schroeder assumed the position on March 4. In April 2003 a long range plan for 2003-2005, was shepherded by executive director Chuck Schroeder and a team of staff members. The Board of Directors established a Long Range Planning Committee to monitor the progress of the Plan.

Between 2001 and 2004 a $500,000 endowment was achieved to support the collecting, preservation, and access activities associated with the A. Keith Brodkin Contemporary Western Artists Project. The project is managed by the Dickinson Research Center which had its beginnings in 1997.

In February 2003 the Rodeo Historical Society Oral History Project was initiated and designed to collect, through recorded interviews, the biographies and stories of rodeo cowboys and cowgirls nationwide. These interviews are preserved and made available to authors, historians, and other interested persons in the Dickinson Research Center.

During the 2003 summer a book publication program/series called "The Western Legacies Series" evolved and was implemented between the museum and the University of Oklahoma Press. Published in 2005, the first book in this series was about the museum and titled A Western Legacy: The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Museum Celebration Drafted in October 2003, the museum's first collections plan guides the content and development of the museum’s collections, leads the staff in a coordinated and uniform direction over a period of years to refine and expand the value of the collections in a predetermined way, and helps the Museum seek to gain intellectual control over collections and to ensure that it has appropriate staff and resources for collections care. The plan had its genesis following the attendance by two staff members of a collections planning colloquium sponsored by the AAM and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. in November 2002.

A museum-wide conservation survey was conducted by a group of three outside assessors in June 2004. The three conservators were asked to examine the building and collections to help provide information for long term planning for improvement of the building as a preservation environment for the collections. Their February 2005 report sought to aid the institution in improving collections care, development of a long-range preservation plan, increasing staff awareness of collections preservation concerns, and improving environmental conditions in the building envelope.

To deal with a recognized museum funding crisis, the April 2005 Development plan provided an overview of the reasons and priorities for community support development and listed three priorities to accomplish fiscal solvency. The problem is stated in one sentence of the plan, "One of the other challenges that the Museum faces is that as a prominent and important community resource it has done little over its existence to develop a strong and broad base of support in the Oklahoma City greater metropolitan area."

Buffalo Bill at the Museum Drafted in May 2006, the current long range plan for 2006-2008 was based primarily on the results of a year-long study of the Museum's strengths and weaknesses conducted under the auspices of the American Association of Museums' Museum Assessment Program.

The museum inaugurated an annual art event in November 2006 called Small Works, Great Wonder™ Winter Art Sale hosted by the Persimmon Hill Associates, a local Museum volunteer support organization. The social event is a benefit for the museum and represents an opportunity for beginning and experienced collectors to purchase smaller, more affordable works of original Western and Native American art.

In an initial effort to better determine and understand our audience, in March 2007 a statewide image and awareness study was conducted by means of a general population telephone survey whose sample was split into audience and non-audience groups. The executive summary, reported to the Board of Directors on April 18, 2007, stated that "overall, results are positive and the outlook is promising" for the museum.

By Charles E. Rand
February 9, 2009

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