Gordon Gilkey: A Man for All Seasons

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

At the beginning of my freshman year at Oregon State University, I went to see the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (now Liberal Arts) to discuss with him the courses I should be taking. Dean Gordon Waverly Gilkey and I spoke for five or ten minutes. I do not recall what was said, but I do remember Dean Gilkey being very straightforward and to the point.

Many decades later as an archivist at the National Archives, I received a request for information regarding the Nazi Art that had been seized in Germany after World War II and shipped to the United States. In looking at the relevant records I soon discovered that the officer responsible for the seizure and shipping was Capt. Gordon Gilkey. I quickly confirmed that this was the same Gordon Gilkey that I had spoken to as a college freshman.

Since then, I began gathering information about Gilkey, increasingly so once I became engaged in studying and writing about the Monuments Men (the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Officers) and their efforts to locate, protect, and restitute cultural property during and after World War II. 

Gilkey was born March 10, 1912, in Scio, Oregon (Linn County). When he enrolled in high school in nearby Albany, he was named art editor of both the student newspaper and the yearbook. He began his college studies at Albany College,[1] Albany, Oregon, beginning in the autumn of 1929. He earned his way through school by clearing land, driving horse-drawn thrashers during harvest, and serving as a forest lookout high atop Crescent Mountain near Clear Lake, a job that provided long, quiet hours for sketching. Gilkey completed his undergraduate work and received his bachelor degree in biological sciences in 1933. During a couple of summers while an undergrad, Gilkey attended courses at the University of Oregon on a Carnegie Foundation Fellowship and an American Institute of Architecture fellowship. After graduating, Gilkey attended the University of Oregon from 1934 to 1936, as the school’s only student of printmaking. He earned the first Masters in Fine Arts in Printmaking from the University of Oregon in 1936. For his graduate thesis, he created a volume of original etchings documenting construction of the then-new University of Oregon Library, which opened in 1937. Ever resourceful, Gilkey had secured Works Progress Administration funding to purchase the paper, inks, and plates necessary to produce his work, which was turned into a book[2].

In the fall of 1936, Gilkey moved to New York City, and took coursework at the Art Students League. He also became interested in the forthcoming New York World’s Fair and contacted Fair officials about the idea of publishing a book of reproductions and printing several sets of originals himself which would constitute a fine art record of the New York World’s Fair, 1939. The Fair officials were quite interested, but they told him they couldn’t fund it and suggested that he find a publisher. Charles Scribner, of Charles Scribner & Sons, was interested and he was able to go ahead with the book. Gilkey spent most of his time from 1937 until the fair opened in June, 1939, working on the book project. The book, containing 54 etchings and accompanying text by Gilkey, was published in 1939, with the stamp of approval from the Fair Corporation.[3]

During this time he also worked at the National Broadcasting Company doing portraits of some of their outstanding musicians of the relatively newly organized NBC Symphony, including the internationally renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini. He also did views of the RCA and NBC buildings in Rockefeller Center.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt became interested in Gilkey’s etchings of the Fair. In an oral history Gilkey gave in 1980, he said:

My recollection is that he wanted some of the original prints. My recollection is that I gave him some. So, those should be in the Hyde Park Library. Other sets were printed by me for some of the participating governments, as a permanent record of the Fair, also, for some of our own national collections. [4] For example, the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) has a set, because they were having a fair at the same time, [Golden Gate International Exposition] and I believe the New York Public Library got a set, the Metropolitan Museum of Art did, the Library of Congress, and the National Museum, now the National Collection of Fine Arts. [5]

During his time in New York City, until he entered military service in 1942, Gilkey started to form a collection of prints, modest purchases as, he recalled, “prints didn’t cost much then.” He also traded with other artists. While in New York City, in 1939, he married Vivian E. Malone, a native of Albany, his high school sweetheart, and graduate of the University of Oregon. At the time of their marriage she was a violin student at the Julliard School.

During the summer of 1939, Gilkey was offered and accepted a teaching position at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, then a junior college for women. Before he left New York City to go to Stephens College, he said:

Czechoslovakia had been taken over by the Nazis. So, I wrote to President Roosevelt saying that if we got involved in the war in Europe that there should be knowledgeable people along with the troops to tell them what not to blow up. He thought it was a great idea. But, then he became busy after Pearl Harbor, with the conduct of war as President and Commander in Chief. He turned the idea over to Justice Roberts, of the U.S. Supreme Court. Then Roberts eventually established a commission of museum people…. About 1943, they started identifying people in the services or people outside the services who could be pulled in as civilians in uniform to tell the bomber commands and the ground forces what not to blow up, to save things in areas of combat. The commission became known as the Roberts Commission. [6]

He added the Commission “did select a few people by the summer of ’44 as troops were moving across Europe. The few people had no logistic support, no typewriters, no jeeps. But, they were there to advise the field commanders what not to blow up, how to save things if they were in a combat area.”

Gilkey taught three years in the Stephens College art department, where he introduced printmaking instruction. He said in an oral history, that the school had “some very good students from across the country, an interesting faculty, and just not the art faculty. Maude Adams[7] was teaching theater at that time.”

After the United States entered World War II, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps, effective after the close of school in June l942. While awaiting for orders, he took a hurry-up course in camouflage given by the Kansas City Art Institute. He thought that he might be able to get into camouflage work, which would combine his interest in art. “Such,” he said, “was not to be.” He was ordered to active duty at Randolph Field, Central Flying Training Command, San Antonio, Texas. Then he was sent immediately to Kelly Field, to Officers Training School. After he completed Officer’s Training School, and became a Second Lieutenant in the Army Air Forces, he was sent to Ellington Field near Houston, Texas to head up their charts, maps and aerial photographs academic department for navigator and bombardier cadets. He did this for about a year until he became supervisor of instruction for the newly established advanced navigation school at Ellington Field. 

Gilkey remained at Ellington Field until 1944. “All the while,” he recalled “I was trying to get into fine arts and monuments work in Europe.” On January 17, 1944, he wrote the Commission about a position with it.

NARA M1944. Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, 1943-1946. Roll 56. Applications, compiled 1943 – 1944 (NAID 1518903), RG 239. Retrieved from [https://www.fold3.com/image/270221231].

A week later the Commission responded that it did not have a position with the Commission itself, but if he wished to be an Arts and Monuments officer, the Commission would forward the request to the proper War Department office for action.

NARA M1944. Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, 1943-1946. Roll 0056. Applications, compiled 1943 – 1944, (NAID 1518903), RG 239. Retrieved from [https://www.fold3.com/image/270221232] .

However, every time he made a request to join the Monuments Men he was turned down, because he was informed the Central Flying Training Command needed his services as an instructor. During the winter of 1944-1945, he was still looking for a way to get to Europe and learned that the Army Air Forces had assigned a high priority to combat intelligence personnel, so he applied for that assignment. “That had a higher priority than Central Flying Training Command, so they had to release me,” he recalled.

Gilkey went to the combat intelligence school in Orlando, Florida and to another short course at the Anacostia Navy Base in Washington, D.C. Then, he was sent to Europe. When he arrived in Europe, he found orders awaiting him, transferring him from the Air Force to headquarters in Frankfurt, which was the headquarters city of the U.S. Forces in Europe at War’s end. He was assigned, for payroll purposes, to the Office of the Chief Military Historian, Headquarters, Europe. He said:

My job was to head up the War Department’s Special Staff Art Projects in Europe, which had to do with several things. It had to do with liaison with the European governments’ restitution missions at U.S. headquarters who were interested in getting their Nazi looted and displaced museum properties back and their private collections properties back. It had to do eventually, after the Potsdam Agreement, with the location and confiscation of Nazi propaganda and German war art. This was to prevent a revival of Nazism and “German Militarism.” [8]

He worked with that until August, 1947. He noted:

I helped put Europe back together, you might say (he chuckles). Single handedly, I had charge of the confiscation program. I found out what had been done, who had done it, and where it was, through quite a lot of sleuthing. I sent back to Washington D.C., on their orders, over 8,000 items, Nazi propaganda, German war art.

Regarding the confiscation program, Gilkey produced a lengthy report on April 25, 1947, about the German war art he located and shipped it back to the United States.

He reported:

With redeployment imminent, I embarked upon a rigorous schedule to get the war art in some semblance of order and to put down as much information as possible for their eventual use. Ignoring Sundays and holidays and working in an unheated damp room with no ventilation or outside light, I became a recluse. I put in 14 to 15 hours daily, seven days a week, from 16 December 1946, until shipment of the pictures and sculpture on 20 March 1947. All the pictures were labeled and packed, then shipped to the Chief, Historical Properties Section, Office of the Army Headquarters Commandant, The Pentagon, Washington 25, D.C.

The report notes “The total number of objects collected, labeled, and shipped, was 8722.” He concluded his report by observing:

Thus it can be perceived that the Germans had an extensive and carefully planned combat art program to document the war. Perhaps the combat artists were sincere, working artists are simple people.

But behind it always was Adolf Hitler and the men around him. Hitler and his dreams of a super-race built upon the bones of the destruction of all who opposed him in his mad drive to rule the world. If his plan had succeeded, the suicide of the creative arts would have followed.

Hitler advocated freedom in art, but freedom only within the small scope of what he personally approved (and what the majority of Germans understood) — monumental realism. All else was “degenerate and verboten.”All artists whose work did not coincide with Hitler’s viewpoints were forbidden to paint, exhibit, or sell.

Those who spoke against such tyranny had their works and property confiscated and were placed in concentration camps. Others, who could, left Germany before they too could not restrain their protests. Moreover, those whose works met all the visual requirements, but who by accident of birth did not belong to the “master” race, were destroyed along with their works.

A blindfold was placed on the borders of Germany to keep the German people free from the contamination and influence of contemporary culture and progressive creative movements in other lands. A good beginning of German Expressionism in art was declared degenerate and verboten. A generation of Germans was brought up in cultural ignorance.

A systematic looting of all removable cultural objects in German invaded lands was compensated for by the Germans with exhibits propagandizing the mighty Wehrmacht.

German art became a tool to spread the manure of Nazism and Nazi directed German Militarism.

Aside from the accumulation of intelligence and the historical value of the collected German War Art, my work of the past year has attained the removal from Germany of this monument to their baseness. If it had been left in Germany, it would have been a potential threat to the world through its future reinstallation and German misuse. [9]

Gilkey, in his 1980 oral history interview, also said:

At military headquarters, I was the liaison between military government and Berlin and the Monuments and Fine Art officers, working under the Roberts Commission out of Washington. So, I acted as sort of a clearing house. Sometimes some of the information was very sensitive, and I didn’t trust telephones, I hand-carried the information. I participated in some of the discoveries of art and helped secure the art. Sometimes this involved our forces, sometimes the constabulary in the area of the military government. Then we ran out of gas by spring of 1947. You couldn’t get much gas over there. … It was hard to operate, hard to get out and run things down.

He concluded his work in August, 1947, and returned to the United States. During his time in Europe he made the acquaintance of many artists.  He was able, upon returning home, to help promote those artists’ work throughout the United States via the International Print Exchange, which he founded from his home in Corvallis, Oregon. For these and subsequent efforts, he was knighted by France and given similar honors by Italy, Germany, and Sweden. The United States awarded him the Meritorious Service Medal. In 1997, he was promoted in rank to Officer of the National Order of the Légion d’Honneur by the French government.

As a result of his contacts in Europe his print collection continued to grow. By 1947, Gilkey had amassed a large collection of prints and etchings by artists ranging from the 15th century to his own contemporaries, including works by Picasso, Whistler, Chagall, Rembrandt, Goya, Renoir, and, Hogarth. A four-color lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec was among only four known in existence: Gilkey owned one, as did the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Arriving back in the United States, Gilkey became a Professor of Art and Chairman of the Art Department of Oregon State College (which became Oregon State University (OSU) in 1961) at Corvallis, Oregon. During the 1950s he organized the Oregon Art Alliance and sought $10,000 from the legislature to fund an official Oregon Arts Commission. He received an honorary doctorate from Lewis and Clark College in June 1957. During the 1963-1964 school-year he became acting dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences[10], while continuing as chairman of the art department. During the spring of 1964, he became the dean.

In 1965 Gilkey wrote and presented a unanimously adopted resolution to the College Art Association of America which urged President Lyndon Johnson to support federal legislation calling for the establishment of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities. The resolution was cabled to the president and members of Congress and within a few months, the enabling legislation became law, creating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. While the legislation was under consideration, Gilkey wrote to Governor Mark Hatfield that an Oregon Arts Commission should be established if Oregon was to participate in the benefits of the proposed national legislation. Hatfield immediately invited Gilkey to get together a representative group of Oregon cultural leaders, from which the Governor’s Planning Council for the Arts and Humanities was established. Gilkey was elected chair of the Council which was succeeded by the Oregon Arts Commission in 1967.

Gilkey retired from the United States Air Force Reserves in 1977 as a full colonel. During his reserve service he was attached for many years to the Defense Intelligence Agency. During active duty periods in the mid-1960s, he developed special projects for then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and for the National War College.

In the summer of 1977, Gilkey retired from OSU, but stayed on for two terms as emeritus professor teaching a full load of studio and lecture courses in the art department. By the time he retired, his habit of trading and purchasing prints had produced a full-fledged international collection featuring more than 15,000 pieces, most of which were stowed on shelves in the basement of his Corvallis home. Their value was conservatively estimated at over 10 million dollars.

Gordon and Vivian Gilkey moved to Portland, Oregon in April 1978. In Portland, Gilkey became involved with the Portland Art Association, which was renamed the Oregon Art Institute on July 31, 1989, and on April 21, 1992, the name was changed to the Portland Art Museum. He would serve two terms as a trustee of the Portland Art Association, helping to find money for a Portland Art Museum School, and two terms as a trustee of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland.

When Gilkey was interviewed in 1980 he was asked what exactly was his job at the museum. His response was “I am a curator of prints and drawings… I’ll serve as long as I’m able and then I’ll be honorary curator for life, I’m artist-printmaker in residence in the museum school. I teach one class in studio printmaking and one lecture class in the history of printmaking. I’m full-time curator, a half time teacher, a half time printmaker in residence. That keeps me busy.”

He indeed kept busy. He continued to produce his own work and was represented in most of the major museums in the United States, and many abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris), the British Museum, the Staatsgalerie (Stuttgart, Germany), and the National Academy of Fine Arts (China). In 1978, Gilkey decided that his collection should be shared, preferably in a permanent home accessible to students, scholars, and the public. That year, he donated about 8,000 prints to the Portland Art Museum. He and his wife ultimately donated more than 14,000 objects. The museum’s Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Center for the Graphic Arts was inaugurated in 1993. Gilkey served as curator for the collection, while also teaching printmaking at the museum’s school, the Pacific Northwest College of Art. He was eventually named professor and printmaker-in-residence.

Gilkey continued to serve as curator of prints and drawings until his death on October 28, 2000. By the time Gilkey died, his collection, which numbered about 21,000 graphic art prints and 6,000 photographs, was among the most important print collections on the West Coast. Shortly before his death, he received an honorary doctorate from OSU at the commencement held on June 11, 2000. Also, in 2000, the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts awarded Gilkey its highest honor, the Ellis F. Lawrence Medal.

In September 2016, my wife and I traveled to Corvallis, to attend an OSU football game (Go Beavs). While walking across campus we passed a building that I had known as a student as Social Science Hall. On the building was a sign that it was named Gilkey Hall. [11] I thought to myself, how wonderful, how truly rewarding, and how richly deserved for a man who had made so many contributions to OSU, Oregon, and the nation.

Sources not otherwise noted:

 “That’s Dr. Gordon Gilkey,” CLA ALUM: The Magazine for Alumni of the OSU College of Liberal Arts, Vol. 19, No. 1 (August 2000).

“Gordon Gilkey: Man of Many Accomplishments,” CLA ALUM: The Magazine for Alumni of the OSU College of Liberal Arts, Vol. 15, No. 1 (July 1997).

Susan Bowers, “The Detective Artist,’ Old Oregon: For University of Oregon Alumni and Friends, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Winter 1997).

Kimber Williams, “The Art of War,” Oregon Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2 (Winter 2013).


[1] The college was relocated to Portland, Oregon in 1938 and in 1942 adopted the name Lewis & Clark College.

[2] Building the Library, Etchings by Gilkey: https://researchguides.uoregon.edu/historic-knight/gilkey-prints .

[3] http://portlandartmuseum.us/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=15531;type=101

[4] The etchings would eventually find their way into museums in London, Brussels, The Hague, and Paris.

[5] “Gordon Gilkey Oral History Interview,” June 27, 1980, Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Oregon State University, accessed March 27, 2020, http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/omeka/items/show/34451..

[6] The commission Gilkey was referring to was the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas. For more information about the commission see https://www.archives.gov/research/holocaust/finding-aid/civilian/rg-239.html

[7] Regarding Maude Adams, see . http://www.bookmice.net/darkchilde/maude/adams39.html

[8] Some of Gilkey’s correspondence, and that relating to him, regarding looted art and Germany war art can be found by searching National Archives holdings at: https://go.fold3.com/holocaust_art

[9] Gilkey’s full report can be viewed at: https://medium.com/@abeaujon/gordon-w-gilkeys-report-on-german-war-art-295e7dcb5360  For information about the subsequent disposition of the seized German war art see Michael E. Ruane, “Fort Belvoir holds cache of art the Nazis made and a WWII U.S. Army officer tracked down,” The Washington Post, February 23, 2014, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/fort-belvoir-holds-art-made-by-the-nazis-and-found-by-a-world-war-ii-us-army-officer/2014/02/21/2158194c-9a7e-11e3-b88d-f36c07223d88_story.html and Andrew Beaujon, “How a Trove of Nazi Art Wound Up Under Lock and Key on an Army Base in Virginia,” November 12, 2017 at https://www.washingtonian.com/2017/11/12/trove-nazi-art-wound-lock-key-army-base-virginia/.

[10] The name Humanities and Social Sciences was changed in 1973 to the College of Liberal Arts.

[11] The building had been renamed Gilkey Hall in 2001.