For Toupin family descendant Karen Whitecotton, providing a Potawatomi perspective within her field of work inspires her daily. She began her career in the museum industry nearly two decades ago and served as the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center director in 2009-2010. Today, Whitecotton owns and operates Heritage Museum Services LLC, contracting with museums as well as corporate and private collectors. She also recently accepted a position as director of collections for OKPOP, the Oklahoma Historical Society’s upcoming museum of popular culture.
“Working with collections allows me to lend a voice to things that aren’t given a voice,” Whitecotton said. “In this profession, I’m in a position to understand and acknowledge cultural sensitivities, and that enables me to address topics that are important to me personally and culturally.”
She strives to look at her projects through her Potawatomi lens, and she built her company Heritage Museum Services on those principals.
“Being Potawatomi has a special place in my heart. I’m very proud of my heritage,” she said.
Growing up, her father, Potawatomi tribal member David Whitecotton, often discussed history with the family and encouraged his children to learn about their Native heritage. This early introduction influenced her collegiate studies in the field of history.
While attending Rose State College in Midwest City, Oklahoma, Whitecotton became aware of a museum studies program at the University of Central Oklahoma. In 2000, she transferred to UCO in Edmond and has been working in the museum field ever since. She now holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in museum studies.
“I found my calling, and I hit the ground running,” she said. “Twenty years later, and I’ve not looked back. It’s a really wonderful career.”
In the past few years, Whitecotton has received praise for her work with Visual Voices: Contemporary Chickasaw Art.
The traveling exhibit features 15 Chickasaw artists and highlights the strength and resiliency of the Chickasaw people.
“It’s about 60 pieces of contemporary Chickasaw art — everything from fiber art to bronze and a couple of installation pieces,” Whitecotton said. “It was a really interesting process working with living artists because there are so many voices involved.”
Whitecotton and project team members oversaw logistics and helped make the original concept for Visual Voices a reality.
“There was a lot of heart in it, especially from the artists since this is their livelihood,” Whitecotton said. “I love contemporary Native American art, so it was really a fun process. I would love to see more mainstream art exhibitions like that with other tribes — I’d definitely love to see a Potawatomi one.”
The IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, will display the exhibition Aug. 15, 2019 to Jan. 19, 2020, and the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, will host Visual Voices Sept. 17, 2020 to Jan. 18, 2021.
Learn more about the exhibit and artists behind the project at chickasawartists.com.
Living on Tulsa time
Although Whitecotton’s career has taken her all over the world, with lengthy exhibition installations overseas in places like Israel and the Vatican, she finds that Oklahoma-based work provides a sense of grounding. She grew up in Shawnee and recently moved from Norman to Tulsa for her new position at OKPOP.
The museum is currently under construction in Tulsa’s Arts District across the street from Cain’s Ballroom, a popular and historic live music venue.
“I will be working to get their collections cataloged, and I also work on acquiring new pieces for the collections,” she said. “I’ll be integrated into the exhibition process, working with a team to figure out what pieces we need for the permanent exhibits once the museum opens and planning temporary exhibits down the line.
“Everything will tie back to Oklahoma in some way,” she said.
OKPOP also hired her husband David Davis as the director of operations.
“My husband and I actually have a lot of fun working together because he is very artistic, and I’m very organized and methodical. We really balance each other out,” she said.
The couple looks forward to curating, designing exhibits and opening the new museum for the public within the next two years. Although the new position requires much of Whitecotton’s time, she plans to continue operating Heritage Museum Services but will be more selective with the projects she undertakes.