In his 2011 State of the City address, Mayor Mick Cornett said, “The quality of the arts in our community exceeds our visitors’ expectations time after time. And the people that move here, not knowing what to expect from our arts community, tell me over and over again, that they never knew Oklahoma City had such a strong arts community.” The word has gotten out: Oklahoma is a creative state.
Today, Oklahomans in the mood for some creative stimulation are almost certain to find a fix within a short distance from anywhere in the state. Whether you fancy fine art, natural history, sciences, theatre or a festival, you will no doubt find one during any given time. This wasn’t always the case. There was a time not long ago when Oklahomans had to travel outside of the state to experience the creative beauty and the inspiring, soothing benefits of the visual arts. Thankfully, due in part to legislation signed by United States President Lyndon P. Johnson in 1965, Oklahoma now benefits from a $314.9 million dollar arts impact on our state’s economy. This legislation led to the development of the Oklahoma Arts Council (OAC), which has a mission “to lead, cultivate and support a thriving arts environment, which is essential to quality of life, education and economic vitality for all Oklahomans.” The OAC awards partial funding and supports the hundreds of state-wide venues we enjoy today. In 2010, the OAC provided 590 statewide grants to 346 organizations in 112 communities in 59 counties. As Joel Gavin, Director of Marketing and Communications for the OAC states, “Oklahoma communities that have thriving arts and cultural environments will be more likely to attract employers and young professionals, benefit from tourist dollars and foster a greater sense of community.”
Experiencing the Arts: Fine Art Museums
Thanks to the work of the OAC, Oklahomans and tourists are treated to many family-oriented venues: Gavin emphasizes the growing interest in arts with a program started by the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa. During the monthly “Second Saturdays” program, families can visit the museum for free to participate in hands-on art projects, go on art scavenger hunts and view the exhibits. Since the Philbrook has started this program, Gavin says they have seen an enormous increase in attendance on those days. “I think this shows that Oklahomans increasingly want arts and cultural experiences in their communities.” Exhibiting contemporary, traditional and photographic art collections from around the world, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman is a venue for those who appreciate all art genres. The Gilcrease Museum, situated on 460 acres of themed gardens northwest of Tulsa, offers a comprehensive collection of Western art and artifacts complete with historical manuscripts, documents and maps. In Oklahoma City, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum exhibits work from artists and performing artists who have painted, sculpted or portrayed the American cowboy. The Red Earth Museum and Gallery, recently relocated to downtown Oklahoma City near the Skirvin Hotel, gives visitors a chance to view and purchase contemporary Native American art, pottery, jewelry, baskets and beadwork.
Historical areas are being revitalized into local entertainment and visual arts districts. The Paseo and Plaza Districts in Oklahoma City and the Brady Arts District in Tulsa are examples of once bustling business and residential districts that were falling into virtual ghost towns of disrepair. Forgotten buildings sat vacant due to the urban flight of earlier decades. With funding and support from the OAC and the dedication of local art enthusiasts, these areas are returning to life with dining establishments, art galleries and performing arts centers.
Those wanting to experience historic, cultural art in a natural state can visit the Spiro Mounds in eastern Oklahoma, the Woolorac Museum and Wildlife Preserve in Bartlesville, the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko or the Price Tower in Bartlesville, to name just a few. In the metropolitan Oklahoma City area, the Oklahoma History Center and Governor’s Mansion near the State Capitol and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman give visitors a real-life glance at Oklahoma’s history and culture. Of course, we can’t forget the state arts festivals supported by OAC. The Paseo Arts Festival, one of the largest in the area, is held every May (this year on May 28-30). The Plaza District’s Family-Fun Festival is held in October and the annual Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts comes every April, rain or shine.
Education and the Arts
Part of the OAC’s mission is to improve education through the arts. Studies show that arts education provides significant positive effects on student test scores, attendance and behavior. One such endeavor is the OAC’s Art of the State Capitol program. Gavin explains that this program is available for free to eligible public and private schools in two formats: as an in-class activity with DVD and online resources or through an onsite tour complete with a downloadable Capitol Art Field Trip Guide. The capitol includes over 150 works of art, each with its own captivating story of our state’s history. Aligned with the Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) for Oklahoma History and Visual Art as well as the Oklahoma History textbooks, the State Capital Art Program is a visual way to bring Oklahoma history to life for kids. Fifth grade teacher Lanna Loughridge of Union City Elementary School and her sixth grade teaching associate used the entire program to integrate their social studies and art curriculum. “We are a very small school district with one teacher for each grade, so we don’t have an art teacher.” The Art of the Capitol program provided all that the teachers needed to incorporate Oklahoma history lessons with art—a DVD, worksheets and website for the in-class activities, Loughridge explained. The onsite tour field trip pulled it all together. The kids conducted internet research on portraits, finding out what scene from Oklahoma history was being illustrated, the use and relevance of any symbols, and the artist. Loughridge said that many of the kids in their rural district have never been to “the city” much less the State Capitol. “It was great for the kids to get to see [in person] the portrait that they saw on TV. They still talk about it,” said Loughridge. “They remember it and said it was more fun than they thought it would be.” [Editor’s Note: Institutions not eligible for a free DVD from the OAC may purchase the DVD from Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA).]
Arts for Children
Arts venues for children are also supported by the OAC. Events and activities can be found at Leonardo’s Art & Science Museum in Enid, the Stillwater Multi-Arts Center in Stillwater and the Goddard Center in Ardmore as well as numerous community theaters.
What’s Happening in My Area?
As a state agency, OAC cannot accept donations or advocate for funding. “Participation comes in the form of people sharing their thoughts with legislators about how our grants and services impact them and their community,” Gavin said. Because OAC funds so many venues throughout the state, Gavin suggests that people search online for museums, performing arts or art galleries in their area. Calling the local chambers of commerce is also a good way to find local venues. People are certain to “find some great, engaging opportunities,” Gavin said. [Editor’s Note: Many arts events are also listed at metrofamilymagazine.com/calendar.]
Karen Mitchell, a lifelong resident of the Oklahoma City metro area, lives in Edmond with her husband, Mark, teenage son, Ryan. Daughter, Megan, attends OSU in Stillwater.