On a visit to the Philbrook Museum of Art, most likely like other first-time visitors, I was immediately amazed by the 72-room Italian Renaissance mansion and its 23-acre garden. However, I agree with what the former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art said “what counts in a museum is above all the quality of the art that it houses.” When Waite Phillips, the oilman who donated his eleven-year old Villa Philbrook to the City of Tulsa as an art center, the family’s art collection was not as strong as the house. The fabulous collection was strengthened through a few important donations in the next seven decades. If major art institutes in the northeast amassed their unsurpassable collections during the gilded age through key figures in railroad and finance, many Midwest art museums benefit from the new wealth built upon black gold. In case of the Philbrook Museum of Art, it involves a woman from a town now permanently under water: Laura Clubb.
I had never heard of Laura Clubb before my visit. The first painting that I encountered was familiar –a William Bouguereau. “The Shepherdess” was THE painting that I could never forget after I saw it for the first time a few years ago at another mansion-related art center, the Frick Art Center in Pittsburgh. In an age when craftsmanship has been devalued, and idealism is given in to uncertainty and vulgarity, the direct gaze of the shepherdess has an almost therapeutic calming effect on the viewers, that can bring internal harmony out of the incongruity between the untamed beauty and hardship of living.
I was grateful to have the chance to see the shepherdess again. Then naturally, I checked the label – it was a gift of Laura A. Clubb.
At that point I hadn’t thought twice about who Laura Clubb might be. It was only with increasing frequency as I wandered through the halls of the mansion that the question came to mind: who was this great art collector?
Almost all of my favorite American paintings in the collection were there after a donation by Ms. Clubb. I began to wonder how fun it would be if I could have talked to her in person. (I knew that would not be possible as she donated the bulk collection to the Philbrook Art Center in 1947.) To some degree a collector gets to know an artist on a personal level. Though the artists, William Merritt Chase, Worthington Whittredge and William Bouguereau may not be living, those who spend a lot of time with art knows it can speak. And who has more time to spend with it than one who lives with it?
Enquiring of museum staff, I was given just a glimpse of who Ms. Clubb was—a woman who owned a hotel that once housed all of the paintings. A printout that was provided explained the rest.
Clubb was a schoolteacher who lived on an Oklahoma ranch with her husband Ike. She had attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois where she studied history, literature and art. Little did she know she would one day be able to buy the paintings in her books. The couple continued to grow their ranch and one of the tracts added in 1922 turned out to contain a vast oil deposit.
Ike and Laura split the proceeds down the middle and used it in their own way. He looked at real estate, she went for the art. Soon paintings, antiques, rugs, books and linens filled her home, which she opened to visitors. That space proved inadequate so it expanded into Ike’s hotel. There paintings by Inness, Sargent, Home, Chase, West, Gainesborough, Constable, Stuart and others. Expectedly the hotel became aa center for art and artists. On September 20, 1930, Harlow’s Weekly called it the “finest private collection of paintings in the world.” The hotel register recorded visitors from England, Germany, China and India. She continuously bought and sold paintings through galleries in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City.
Several California museums sought the collection, but Clubb felt the money had come from the Oklahoma soil and it was here where it should stay. Ike and Laura both passed away in the hotel in 1951. The hotel was closed, reopened as a nursing home and later flooded for the creation of a lake.
So that’s the story of Laura Clubb, one of the great, but accidental art collectors of the 20th Century. It was Charles M. Schwab who commented his success was half luck. In this case we’re lucky it came to someone with an appreciation for art and a desire to give a lasting gift to the people of Oklahoma.
Below is a picture of the Clubb Hotel at its prime time.