Shawnee, Oklahoma’s 103-year-old art museum connects culture and history

SHAWNEE – Nestled on the green campus of Oklahoma Baptist University and next to the Abbey which still houses the congregation of Benedictine monks who helped found it, you will find one of the oldest art museums in the Oklahoma.

The facade of the museum feels like entering a fortress-like temple as you walk through heavy metal gates into a courtyard where a koi pond and plants await.

More exciting is what lies inside the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art on what was once the campus of St. Gregory University. Today it includes more than 7,000 objects – paintings, sculptures and antiquities – from around the world, but it began in 1903 with a single Egyptian scarab, given to Father Gregory Gerrer.

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In the late 1890s and early 1900s, it was rare for many Americans, let alone Oklahomans, to have the opportunity to travel the world. Gerrer saw the gift as a sign to share the arts and culture experienced during his travels, said Dane Pollei, senior curator and director of the museum.

“He had the idea to create a collection that would teach Oklahoma people about the world,” Pollei said.

The life and travels of Gerrer

Gerrer, born Robert Francis Xavier Gerrer, immigrated from France to the United States with his family in 1872. As a boy, Gerrer showed great artistic and musical talent, even playing the clarinet in a circus for a short time.

“After becoming a monk, a visiting abbot noticed that he had artistic talent,” Pollei said. “He was good at drawing so they sent him to Europe to be ordained and while there he spent several years studying art, art history, art restoration and had the opportunity to travel.”

By the early 1900s, Gerrer had moved to Rome and started traveling to expand his knowledge and understanding of art. In 1903, after receiving the piece that sparked the idea for the museum, Gerrer answered a call to paint a portrait of Pope Pius X. This portrait was chosen as the Pope’s official portrait. Gerrer brought the painting back to the United States with him, where it was exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

Back home in Oklahoma, Gerrer painted a copy of the portrait which was sent to the Vatican. The original is now in the permanent collection of the Shawnee Museum.

“One of the things monks don’t do, Benedictine monks don’t brag about themselves, so he was in demand as an artist, but if he wasn’t the Benedictine monk, he probably would have been better known,” Pollei said. “He was on the faculty of Notre-Dame for many years; he started the art gallery at Notre Dame, but Shawnee has always been his home. »

Gerrer cataloged his collection twice as it moved from space to space. During the second cataloging in 1942, 218 paintings and more than 6,300 artifacts were counted.

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A History of Art in Small Town Oklahoma

Unlike a number of major museums in the country, Gerrer’s collection has always been public. It was first exhibited in the parsonage of St. Benedict’s Church in Shawnee, then moved to Gerrer’s own painting studio. When the collection outgrew space, in 1919, it was moved to Benedictine Hall on the St. Gregory campus and remained open to the public.

“It was never a museum for St. Gregory students, it was for anyone who wanted to visit, and that was the goal of the monks,” Pollei said.

Eventually, as the university grew, the time came for the collection to find a new home again. For a short time it was loaned to the Kirkpatrick Science and Arts Foundation at the OKC Exhibition Center.

In 1979, the building that still houses the collection today opened as the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, built by the Abbey with the help of matching funds from the Mabee Foundation.

In keeping with the monks’ goal of using art for education regardless of religious affiliation, the museum has spent decades cultivating experiences with local schools. Pollei said the museum has been collecting visitation data for years through assessments to learn more about what excites both students and teachers about the museum.

“For a lot of schools, it’s their only educational outing, and if they’re in some rural schools or in small towns, they might not have an art teacher, so that’s the their first time working with an artist or with the arts,” Pollei said.

The overwhelming majority of students say they wish they had more time to explore space, Pollei says. This is because because art is used to teach a subject depending on the needs of a teacher’s curriculum, a certain section of the museum may not have as much time.

“We want to do our part to create a generation of learners,” he said.

However, Pollei says it hasn’t always been an easy task to keep the museum and its programs going. With only about 4% of its permanent collection on display, the museum occupies a space of approximately 16,000 square feet, smaller than the single galleries of many of the nation’s largest museums.

“There were struggles like with any nonprofit organization,” he said. “Our independence has been very important to us in terms of having our own sources of funding.”

In 1990, this independence was reinforced when members of the community created the nonprofit that officially separated the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art from St. Gregory University, nearly three decades before problems financial forces force the university to close at the end of 2017.

“We always had an identity problem where people just assumed, oh, college pays, and it never was,” Pollei said. “When the university closed, it was hard to let people know that we were still here and still successful.”

Crafts retailer Hobby Lobby and the family of founder David Green purchased the former St. Gregory’s University campus in 2018. The campus was later donated to Oklahoma Baptist University and named Green Campus in 2019.

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The Mabee-Gerrer Museum today

Already lacking in foot traffic since the campus closed, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to the museum.

Usual in-person student travel slowed and then stopped as the pandemic brought the world to a standstill. The museum has begun offering virtual tours, ranging from serving 15,000 students, mostly from Oklahoma onsite each year, to receiving requests from Louisiana in Canada and New York in California.

Now, as high school students begin to return for in-person visits, Amber DuBoise-Shepherd, the museum’s education and outreach manager, is focused on helping visiting students connect with cultures. of the whole world. As an Indigenous woman, DuBoise-Shepherd finds that her own heritage helps her explain and connect history to cultures still alive today.

“There are a lot of students who don’t realize that those cultures are still around today, practicing those traditional ways,” she said.

In everything curators bring to the collection now, they seek to honor Gerrer’s original intentions. Over 800 pieces have been added since Gerrer’s last catalog of his collection in 1942.

“When we evaluate a work of art, isn’t it just that it deserves to be in a museum? We also ask the question: ‘Can we use it to teach people something about the world? “, said Pollei.

The museum, in addition to its permanent collection, presents special exhibitions focusing on specific artists, forms and cultures.

An upcoming exhibit, curated by DuBoise-Shepherd, will feature Native American cribs, a special project because her own family used cribs for her and her brothers. Many objects will be on loan from the Red River Museum in Idabel and the exhibition will open on April 23.

“These traditions, they carry on, so I always try to emphasize that a museum is not just a collection of old and interesting objects,” DuBoise-Shepherd said. “There are cultures here that are still very much alive today.”

Regular admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children, but the museum hosts free community days and gallery talks throughout the year. Additionally, each summer the museum partners with local arts foundations to offer free admission, so more families can experience the collection.

The Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art is open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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