For nearly a quarter of a century, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has held an event unlike any other in the country — one where the sophisticated artworks celebrated aren’t paintings or sculptures, but belt buckles and saddles. The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association Exhibition & Sale showcases the ingenuity, practicality and cultural history of cowboy gear.
For the art sale and exhibit open October 6, 2023 – January 2, 2024, the museum partners with the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, which was founded in 1998 with the goal of maintaining beautiful, individualized craftsmanship of cowboy culture’s traditional art in the American West. The association is made up of 12 artists with five additional emeritus artists and offers seminars, professional workshops, mentorships and scholarships related to Western handiwork. The four disciplines the TCAA is dedicated to preserving are saddle making, bit and spur making, silversmithing and rawhide braiding.
All of these specialties are represented at the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association Exhibition & Sale in Oklahoma City, with everything from traditional cowboy gear to more contemporary items being displayed. The traditional items include gorgeous leather saddles, belt buckles and jewelry as well as rawhide reins and quirts. Some of the more interesting pieces featured in this year’s exhibition are lamps, a wine opener and even a completely leather-tooled Fender Stratocaster guitar.
The exhibition features pieces by 12 artists, who have each hand-crafted three to five works, as well as two works by fellows in the TCAA education program. The artists come from all over the West and represent several
states as well as Canada. One artist is from Argentina and focuses on the gaucho traditions of South America. Everything on display has been specifically designed for this exhibition and will not be viewed anywhere else in the country. The show takes the traditional, functional objects and elevates them as the sculptural works of art that they are.
The sale portion takes place the first weekend the exhibition is open and is packed with activities for the cowboy enthusiast. Patrons who want to bring a piece of art home are invited to a cocktail party that Friday night and then a brunch Saturday. The main event is Saturday evening, when hopeful collectors place their bids to win the pieces, which have fixed prices, followed by dinner. The sale traditionally has a 75-to-100% sell-through rate, but any pieces that are still available will be clearly marked and available for purchase for the duration of the exhibition.
Nathan Jones, curator of history at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, has overseen the sale and exhibition for the last five years. “These are not pieces you see every day, but they do have a real connection to history,” he said. “The exhibition is very approachable and real, down to the smell of leather in the gallery. It provides the opportunity to look closely at the craftsmanship and to look closely at what people value about making these items, whether you consider yourself a Westerner or not. It is the chance to see what one group of Westerners holds dear, particularly those people who identify with or are curious about the traditional cowboy message.”