Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said cityâ€™s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In part I of this Oklahoma Day, artist Romy Owens gives you a sense of the artist and arts culture in Oklahoma City and its namesake state at-large.Â
Guest post by Romy Owens
My great grandmother grew up in a sod house in the side of a hill. Why? Why is this relevant? Oklahoma is young. Weâ€™re 108 years old. We are not so removed from the reality that community equaled survival. Weâ€™re still a highly community-minded state. That is not to imply that you live in a non-community-minded state, or that weâ€™re super special. (We are.) Unless youâ€™re meeting Sally Kern, when you meet someone from Oklahoma, youâ€™ll probably like him/herâ€¦ because lots of us are friendly, and smart, and funny, and attractive.
So, with that said, we are also a state steeped in terrible statistics and stereotypes. We love football, basketball, rodeo, beef, pork, incarcerated women, pregnant teenagers, and energy. We cling to religion. We have extreme weather events. We have a majority conservative political representation. (FTR: I am part of the minority.)
However, thankfully, Oklahoma City is not a cultural dustbowl. (Oooh, Cultural Dustbowl is totally the name of my next body of work.) We love art too.
In Oklahoma City, we have institutional arts organizations that receive significant support from foundations, corporations, and individuals. More often than not it seems like the focus is on dead peopleâ€™s art, but recently all of the major art institutions have started to embrace contemporary art and artists. (Hooray!) Iâ€™m sure the ballet, philharmonic, museums, and theaters would say they need more money to do bigger and better and serve more people, and sure, they could use more money, and probably deserve more money, but in the big picture of arts institutions serving the public, they are all doing great. Thanks for asking.
We also have many small arts organizations (dance and theater companies, non-profit art spaces, arts districts) that receive financial support from foundations, corporations, and individuals. All of these agencies are providing contemporary art programming, often using Oklahoma playwrights, choreographers, performers, and artists. These organizations need money. They might need better organization as well, but to do that they need financial support.
And then we have the individual artists, and there are a lot of us, working diligently, and with a few exceptions, most of the time for less than minimum wage. (I know this isnâ€™t just an Oklahoma problem.)
I am a visual artist in Oklahoma City, and if Malcolm Gladwellâ€™s assessment of what makes an expert an expert, I am an expert regarding the contemporary art scene of Oklahoma City.
In Oklahoma City, I am part of a small, tight-knit community of contemporary artists. Among us, maybe two dozen work as full time artists. There are easily another 200 who self-identify as artists and consistently create, but work 40 hours a week at another job (many art related). Add to that another 1000 people who make art for an occasional group exhibition, but not necessarily professionally, and that makes up the visual art community in Oklahoma City (and probably in other small cities like Omaha, Louisville, Columbus, Birminghamâ€¦).
Like every other state, Oklahoma has decorative interior designer artists, conceptual artists, performance artists, safe festival artists, established name-brand crank-it-out artists, street artists, craft artists, eager experimental emerging artists, and weary-but-still-eager experimental established artists. We represent all media and movements. If you broke it down proportionately, Iâ€™m sure we are identical to the artistic fabric of the art meccas, just on a smaller scale. And like all artists everywhere, we have a lot of dialogue about art: my art, your art, that art, current art, past art, artistic practices, ideas, residencies, grants, fellowships, studios, patrons, opportunities, money, money, money.
For visual artists in Oklahoma City to make ends meet with part time contract gigs, there are numerous afterschool and seasonal school break art teaching opportunities, some art preparatory opportunities, and a few art administrator opportunities.
We only have one paid yearlong residency program at a historic downtown hotel. And we have one unpaid one month-long residency program for printmakers at a downtown art gallery.
There is an art walk happening in a different art district three weeks out of each month. We have two art festivals that occur each spring. Nearly every weekend, there is something new to see or attend. Scoff if you want, that wasnâ€™t always the case here.
We have a public art program at the city level. We have a quarterly crowd-sourced grant for artists of all disciplines modeled after the Brooklyn FEAST. And we are about to see the renovation of a historic building west of downtown for a new 21st century Museum Hotel. This has all really developed in the past ten years. I am certain that we wouldnâ€™t be where we are now if it werenâ€™t for OVAC.
Oh yeah, we have OVAC. The Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition is the only arts organization that benefits individual visual artists exclusively. Before OVAC, there was no institution in Oklahoma providing financial support to individual Oklahoma artists, except art buying patrons. As many artists know, when the successful continuation of an artistâ€™s career is solely determined through patronage, the contemporary art changes and the voice becomesâ€¦ decorative. OVAC empowers us to take risks, stray from the safety of the known, and to change the conversation as we deem necessary.
So in a state where prior to 1988, the only way to make a living as an artist was to 1) make art that people will purchase, 2) be independently wealthy, or 3) leave the state, having an organization provide grants to make art, or provide exhibition opportunities with honorariums is a game changer. (OVAC does so much more than that, but money talks.)
The contemporary art scene has been significantly improved by OVACâ€™s work. Itâ€™s one of the few art organizations in the city that has a zero censorship clause. The ideas are richer, the discourse is stronger, and the networks are wider. Its mission is to support visual arts and artists and their power to enrich communities. Done. And more please.
So back to the charm of Oklahomans, as a tightly knit art communityâ€”we are highly supportive of one another. Of course, as individual artists, we are competing over limited opportunities within our small cities and throughout the state, and competitive opportunities out of state, but we all know, when one succeeds, we all succeed.
I feel fortunate to be aware of what many of my contemporaries are doing. I also feel fortunate that for our size we have so many creative and talented artists contributing to the conversation of what is art. I couldnâ€™t begin to list everyone whose work I admire, but here are a few:
Deep down in my heart, I know there are many Oklahomans who understand the significance of what my contemporaries and I contribute to the cultural landscape of the state, and who understand the value of visual arts past the formal museum setting or the decorator showcase home. But in accessing the contemporary art scene of Oklahoma City and knowing what is happening even just five hours north in Kansas City, we still have a long way to go.
We still donâ€™t have enough galleries that exhibit and sell art. (I know this is a problem even for artists of the largest cities.) We cling to the art auction-as-fundraiser model like itâ€™s going to leave us for another city. Affordable studios arenâ€™t easy to secure. And more paid residency programs or professional opportunities could transform careers, but establishing and funding them seems challenging at best.
In a recent article in the cityâ€™s mainstream newspaper, I was featured in a story about the Affordable Care Act, and the backlash regarding my receiving subsidized insurance (for the first time in eleven years) was hateful, mostly centered on the fact that I â€œshould get a real job.â€ Unfortunately, such phrases are proffered to artists regularly in Oklahoma and elsewhere. So, while we truly are a nurturing supportive community trying very earnestly to keep a diverse cultural experience viable, itâ€™s still a struggle for the individual artist in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma does have a lower cost of living though. Like super low. Like maybe you should move here and join our art community. Consider that an invitation.
With all this said, personally, I myself am a thriving Oklahoma artist at a pivotal point in my own career, and I know that I need to find opportunities outside of Oklahoma. Ultimately, the outward extending success of my studio practice and well as those of my peers will make for a better cultural landscape in Oklahoma. So, hit me up if you have any leads. And of course, hit my fellow Oklahoma artists up, too. Theyâ€™re all making great work in Oklahoma.
Romy Owens is an interdisciplinary contemporary artist living and working in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. www.romyowens.com