Olson Kundig transforms Tulsa warehouse into museum devoted to the life and work Bob Dylan

Simple Twist of Tulsa

Olson Kundig transforms Tulsa warehouse into museum devoted to the life and work Bob Dylan

Exterior rendering of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Courtesy Olson Kundig)

The man of the hour wasn’t present but some of his biggest admirers turned out this week as the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, welcomed its newest attraction, the $10 million Bob Dylan Center.

Created inside a former paper warehouse, the 29,000-square-foot cultural center is both a museum designed to draw Bob Dylan fans and an archive for scholars studying the 80-year-old singer and writer, who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature for creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” 

It’s the newest addition to Tulsa’s growing Arts District, which also includes the Woody Guthrie Center, Cain’s Ballroom, and The Church Studio, a recording studio once owned by Leon Russell. Tulsa is also home to the Philbrook Museum of Art and the Gilcrease Museum, and the Oklahoma Historical Society is planning the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture for the Arts District.

stacked white boxes containing music memorabilia
Rendering of an archive wall. (Courtesy Olson Kundig)

Dedicated to the study and appreciation of Dylan and his cultural significance, the Bob Dylan Center is a project of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which acquired the artist’s archive for $20 million in 2016 in partnership with the University of Tulsa and later bought out the university’s share. The archive was housed at the university’s Helmerich Center for American Research at Gilcrease Museum before moving to a 5,000-square-foot space at the Bob Dylan Center.

Based in Tulsa, the Kaiser foundation also operates the Woody Guthrie Center nearby, and directors say they believe having a companion center devoted to Dylan will help boost tourism in Tulsa. Both the Bob Dylan Center and the Woody Guthrie Center operate under the auspices of the American Song Archives, part of the Kaiser foundation.

Olson Kundig, led by design principals Tom Kundig and Alan Maskin, is the lead architect and exhibit designer for the Bob Dylan Center. 59 Productions, a specialist in design for stage and live events, collaborated with Olson Kundig on exhibition design and media development, while Lilly Architects of Tulsa, one of the designers of the pop culture museum, is the center’s architect of record.

The building’s front facade faces a public gathering space called Guthrie Green and contains an image of Dylan based on a 1965 photo by Jerry Schatzberg. Dylan, who is also a visual artist, contributed a 16-foot-high metal sculpture at the entrance but otherwise had no role in planning and design and did not come to the opening.

At a ribbon cutting ceremony last week, Mayor G. T. Bynum said the project is the latest sign that Tulsa is serious about becoming a center for the study of American music. Even before it opens, he said, the Bob Dylan Center had members from 40 states and 13 countries.

Interior rendering (Courtesy Olson Kundig)

The Bob Dylan Center “builds on what went before—the Woody Guthrie Center, Philbrook, Gilcrease, Cain’s, the musicians and the artists who have come here and drawn inspiration from this community,” said Ken Levit, executive director of the Kaiser foundation. ”And it’s your dream, our dream, for this to be a beacon for generations to come, who will write their poems in Tulsa, play their instruments here and add to this great story.”

Steven Jenkins, director of the Bob Dylan Center, told guests at the ribbon cutting that he wasn’t surprised Dylan didn’t attend the festivities. He said the singer is well known for focusing on the future, not dwelling on the past.

“We hope Dylan, were he here in town, would approve of how we’ve gone about this endeavor,” Jenkins said. “But in typical fashion, he is not looking back. He is looking forward. He’s thinking about, I would only imagine, tomorrow night’s show, painting another painting, writing another song…He’s leaving us to contemplate the work that we have here thus far as it’s encapsulated in the archive.”

hall with portals for exhibition materials
Interior rendering (Courtesy Olson Kundig)

As designed by Olson Kundig, the former warehouse at 116 East Reconciliation Way contains more than 100,000 items from the Dylan archive, from notebooks in which he jotted down lyrics to typewritten song drafts to previously-unreleased recordings. There are never-before-seen film performances, rare photos, visual art and unopened fan mail. Much of the material was used to create exhibits and displays, including a tour that takes people on a musical journey through Dylan’s career.

Every visitor receives an audio guide and headphones that help bring the archival material to life. There’s also an “immersive film experience”; a multimedia timeline of Dylan’s life; a 55-seat screening room, and a studio where visitors can become producers and mix different instrumental sounds into his songs. Six concrete pillars trace the history of key Dylan songs such as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” from the start of writing to the day they were released.

Portions of the archive are available to scholars by appointment only. The center also has an artist in residence program, and the first one is U.S. Poet Laureate and Tulsa native Joy Harjo. 

With the opening, Dylan joins Prince and Elvis Presley as a musician who has a museum in America’s heartland, rather than on the East or West Coast. In a recent interview for Vanity Fair, Dylan said he sold his archive to the Kaiser foundation in part because it built the center for Woody Guthrie, whom he idolized, and he felt it made sense to have his work there.

“There’s more vibrations on the coast, for sure,” he told writer Douglas Brinkley. “But I’m from Minnesota and I like the casual hum of the heartland.”

Jenkins said at the ribbon-cutting that it’s rare to have a center such as this devoted to a living artist. But that means there’s a chance that Dylan, who turns 81 on May 24, may still visit.

“Who knows?” Jenkins said. “Maybe one day he’ll just sort of saunter in and take a look around and see what he thinks.”