The Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa was completed in 1929 and is widely considered an architectural masterpiece.
But the church has a controversy over who deserves credit for the design. An art exhibit at the Gardiner Gallery on the campus of Oklahoma State University, which begins Thursday and runs through Aug. 30, will delve into that.
The exhibit delves into the controversy surrounding Adah Robinson, a pioneer of art in Oklahoma, and Bruce Goff, who was one of her art students. Goff had become an apprentice at an architecture firm at 12 years old, and became a draftsman at the firm at 16. Goff was 21 when the church was being planned, and worked closely with Robinson, who oversaw much of the design of both the interior and exterior of the church.
Goff is credited by many as being the designer, and some claim Robinson was just an art teacher, although she was teaching architecture courses more than a decade before the church was being worked on.
‘That Damn Art Woman’ was named so because an architect at the firm would refer to Robinson that way, mainly due to the fact he didn’t like working with a woman. The exhibit features a trove of items, such as letters between those who were involved with the construction of the church, a ledger showing Robinson was paid for many different aspects of the design, newspaper articles showing different perceptions of who was credited and how that swayed toward Goff, as well as works of art done by both Robinson and Goff. Some works were donated to the Gardiner Gallery by the Oklahoma Historical Society, including paintings by Robinson that were placed in the Century Chest in 1913, buried underground, and opened in 2013.
Teresa Holder, director of the Gardiner Gallery, said she had been working on getting this exhibit to the gallery for about four years. She said the church itself has always maintained the fact that Robinson is the architect.
“I had a lot of conversations with different professors over the years, and whenever that would come up I would talk to them about why it was that way,” Holder said. “This is the church’s history, and they have never wavered. There was one minister who at one time thought they should give Goff credit because he was getting so well known. They thought it would bring the church some attention, but they didn’t do so because they would be changing their history.”
Robinson was hired by the University of Tulsa to help get the arts program started, as well as curating the first Oklahoma arts exhibit that featured artists from Oklahoma. Holder said when she was in college, they were crediting Goff with the design of the church. Many of Adah’s pieces, including original sketches of the church, have tended to disappear over the years, and when Holder was able to go into the archives at the church, the box that was said had some of her things was empty.
Throughout her research into the subject, Holder said one thing she noticed was that whenever Robinson seemed to be sick, work on the church, that she didn’t sanction, would take place. She said there was one instance in which Robinson had a tumor removed, and while she was at home resting, work on the balconies inside the church had been completed.
When Robinson returned to the church, she was upset at the work that had been done, and she had it all torn out and replaced with less flashy designs. This is one example of what the exhibit provides in trying to show that Robinson should be the one who receives credit for the design of the church.
While growing up, Holder said she had gotten to see the church when the family would drive by, and even got to explore it during her senior year of high school.
“When I was a child, and we would visit Tulsa, my mother would point at the church and say, ‘Look what Adah did,’ almost like she was a family friend,” Holder said. “So I’d always thought that she had created this. My father was a Methodist minister, and he retired from Boston Avenue, so I was there for one year, my senior year, and we moved all over Oklahoma. So I got to explore the church a little bit during that time.”
“That Damn Art Woman” opens on Thursday and will be open daily through Aug. 30. A reception will be held at the Gardiner Gallery from 2-3 p.m. on Aug. 24. The Gardiner Gallery is located in the Bartlett Center for the Visual Arts on OSU’s campus.