Founded in 1998, the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West is the first such university-based program in the nation. The center, which opened to the public in the fall of 1999, is dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge in the field of American art history as it relates to the western United States. Through its resource center, national symposia, course offerings and related outreach programs, the Russell Center actively engages students and the public in developing a better understanding of, and appreciation for, 19th- and 20th-century Euro-American and Native American artistic traditions. Special emphasis is given to art of Charles M. Russell and his contemporaries. The Russell Center was established concurrently with the Charles Marion Russell Chair, an endowed professorship in art history at the University of Oklahoma. Both the center and the endowed chair were made possible through a generous gift from the Nancy Russell Trust and matching funds from the state of Oklahoma. Administered through the School of Visual Arts and the Weitzenhoffer Family College of Fine Arts, the Russell Center operates in concert with several of the University of Oklahoma’s other distinguished branches including the Western History Collections, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, and the departments of History, Literature, Native American Studies and Film and Video Studies. The Russell Center also actively interfaces with institutions across the country, including museums of Western art and universities that support related programs or collections of Western material culture or art.
The Russell Center is both a facility and a program designed to inspire and excite interest in the study of American Western art, an aesthetic history that enjoys both a regional and a national dimension. While a branch of American art, Western art also incorporates European artistic traditions that have, over time, been adapted to themes, experiences and environments unique to the western United States. Art of the American West also encompasses Native American cultures as both subjects of art and as creative forces.
During much of America’s history, the West has been a defining national symbol. Although considered a region by Euro-Americans, the West was also a myth, a dream and inspiration, a collection of individual experiences, a process of westering and a destination. For Native Americans, however, process and destination played little part in their thinking. For them, the West was something spiritual as well as physical, a sacred domain as well as a common home. The center’s course of study in the art of the American West seeks to discover what the West symbolized and to whom and why.