Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


There's no better place to learn about the history and art of the West than the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, a sprawling, 80,000 square-foot museum located atop Persimmon Hill overlooking old Route 66 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The center attracts about 350,000 visitors each year.

The center, founded in 1955, was the dream of the president of Lee Jeans, Chester A. Reynolds. A Kansas City, Missouri, entrepreneur, he had long been concerned about preserving the country's western heritage. When the museum o.cially opened in 1965, actor John Wayne was parade marshal. He served on the center's board of directors for more than a decade, and his numerous collections are among the museum's treasures. Dedicated to the memory of those who settled the West, the museum quickly began to acquire, catalog, and exhibit art, artifacts, and archival material that pay homage to America's favorite icon, the American cowboy.

Separating myth from reality has always been one of the center's major missions. The reality is found in three major halls of fame, all within the institution. The Hall of Great Westerners honors those who have made significant contributions to the development of the West. The Hall of Great Western Performers honors those who have contributed to the Western genre on stage, screen, and television. Its inductees are honored each year during the Academy Awards–style Western Heritage Awards ceremony. The Rodeo Hall of Fame honorees, chosen by the Rodeo Historical Society, are honored each October. The American Rodeo Gallery displays memorabilia of these rodeo greats.

Reality and myths mingle in the museum's western art collection, including works by such famous artists as Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington, Albert Bierstadt, and William R. Leigh. The work of contemporary artists is found in the center's Prix de West Collection, honoring the annual Prix de West Award winner during the Prix de West Invitational Exhibition. Held each June, the exhibition features the work of more than ninety of the country's most prominent western artists.

Among recent additions to the museum's showcase of western art and artifacts is the Arthur and Shifra Silberman Native American Art Gallery, which presents a narrative from ledger art to contemporary Indian work. The American Cowboy Gallery traces cowboy culture from its vaquero roots to today's cowboy. The Western Entertainment Gallery highlights the films of early Western movie stars. Prosperity Junction, an authentic turn-of-the-century western town, shows how communities developed in the Old West. The Children's Cowboy Corral provides an interactive experience about western legends.

A constantly changing exhibition schedule explores aspects of the West from fashion, cowboy gear, and photography to notables such as Hopalong Cassidy and Frederic Remington. Special events round out the museum's program, including the annual Chuckwagon Gathering and Children's Festival, a biannual Cowboy Poetry Festival, a Visions of the West Gala honoring patrons, and Michael Martin Murphey's Cowboy Christmas Ball.

What often impresses visitors most is the sense of monumentality that the museum now expresses in its massive Canyon Princess, Welcome Sundown, and End of the Trail sculptures that are among the first works of art greeting guests. What often lingers with them is the memory of viewing the five monumental western landscape triptychs painted by Wilson Hurley. These massive paintings, housed in the Sam Noble Special Events Center, serve as true "windows to the West" for museum visitors.


National Cowboy Hall of Fame website.

M. J. Van Deventer National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Van Deventer, M. J., ed. Visions of the West: A Tribute to Leadership. Oklahoma City: National Cowboy Hall of Fame, 1997.

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