It’s an Oklahoma Day, Part 2: Tulsa

March 11, 2014 · Print This Article

Tulsa Skyline looking North. Image by Bob Smith.

Tulsa Skyline looking North. Image by Bob Smith.

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 city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In part 2 of this Oklahoma Day, curator Lauren Ross takes a spin around culturally revived Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

T-Town Transformation

Guest post by Lauren Ross

I moved to Tulsa in the summer of 2011.  As a relative newcomer (and New York City native), I may not be privy to the long view of the art scene in “T-Town,” but the visual arts in Tulsa have gone through a transformative shift so recent that, even in my short time here, I have borne witness to the sea change.   I’m referring to the revitalization of the downtown neighborhood known as the Brady Arts District.  With its assortment of arts organizations, creative industries, music and performance venues, and overall cool and energetic vibe, this small, long-neglected neighborhood has become Tulsa’s artistic nerve center.

Brady had already been dubbed with the arts district moniker due to the presence of a pioneering few organizations, but critical mass was achieved in 2012-13, primarily due to the efforts of the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF).  Established by the eponymous local philanthropist, GKFF’s main target is combating issues of urban poverty, but it also has done wonders for the civic enhancement of Tulsa.  Rather progressively, many of its efforts to improve the city have been focused specifically on developing arts and culture.  Simply put, the foundation bought up a good deal of dead space in Brady, fixed it up, and turned it over to various arts organizations.  Former empty warehouses now house museums, nonprofit spaces, and teaching facilities, and what was once a truck depot is now a public park and performance space.

"Bean Finneran: Ceramic Landscapes" at 108Contemporary. Image by Steven Michaels Photography and courtesy of 108Contemporary.

“Bean Finneran: Ceramic Landscapes” at 108Contemporary. Image by Steven Michaels Photography and courtesy of 108Contemporary.

Philbrook Downtown Image by Jeremy Charles and courtesy of Philbrook Museum of Art

Philbrook Downtown. Image by Jeremy Charles and courtesy of Philbrook Museum of Art

Philbrook Downtown Image by Jeremy Charles and courtesy of Philbrook Museum of Art

Philbrook Downtown. Image by Jeremy Charles and courtesy of Philbrook Museum of Art

Today this neighborhood features a vibrant mix of organizations.  Neighborhood pioneers include the Brady Theater, the legendary music venue Cain’s Ballroom, the alternative space Living Arts, Tulsa Glassblowing School, and the cooperative gallery Tulsa Artists’ Coalition.  More recent additions anchor Brady Street itself.  The Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education is a three-story building housing classrooms, art studios, galleries and event spaces, jointly administered by the University of Tulsa’s School of Art and Gilcrease Museum.  108Contemporary (formerly Brady Craft Alliance) is a nonprofit space dedicated to contemporary craft that showcases local and national artists.  The archives of Oklahoma son Woody Guthrie, recently relocated from New York, are housed at the Woody Guthrie Center, a museum and research center that also sponsors live music.  Philbrook Downtown, a satellite location for Philbrook Museum of Art, presents exhibitions and programming dominated by modern and contemporary art by Native American and non-Native artists, and houses the Adkins Study Center for Native American art.  Adjacent to these institutions, the Arts and Humanities Council built the Hardesty Arts Center (better known by the acronym, AHHA), a brand new Cor-Ten steel clad, 42,000-square-foot building that features exhibition spaces, artist studios, classrooms, and more.

Exterior of the Woody Guthrie Center showing a mural by Aaron Whisner. Image by Scott Smith and courtesy of Woody Guthrie Center

Exterior of the Woody Guthrie Center showing a mural by Aaron Whisner. Image by Scott Smith and courtesy of Woody Guthrie Center

Guthrie Green. Image by Tom Fox and courtesy of Guthrie Green.

Guthrie Green. Image by Tom Fox and courtesy of Guthrie Green.

The Brady renaissance wasn’t achieved by the presence of arts organizations alone.  GKFF’s revitalization of the neighborhood also included creating subsidized housing, street-scaping and tree planting.  Perhaps most significantly, the foundation created Guthrie Green, a public park with a stage area that serves as a venue for everything from farmer’s markets and food festivals to movies and concerts, all free of charge.  GKFF’s work was matched by a variety of efforts, funded by both public and private sources, which added such amenities as a baseball stadium, television station, and new hotel.  Together, these catalysts had an almost immediate effect.  Seemingly overnight, coffee shops, restaurants, bars and boutiques followed.  An area that used to feel post-apocalyptically deserted on evenings and weekends is now buzzing and humming.  And while the gentrification has spurred a small contingent to grumble over the area getting “too fancy,” the economic benefits to the city have been palpable, and continue to accrue.

I don’t want to imply that Brady is the only area of Tulsa with rich offerings.  Important players in Tulsa’s art scene are scattered throughout the city: Philbrook Museum of Art and Gilcrease Museum, the two largest museums in town, serve as cultural anchors.  Commercial galleries and artist-run spaces are peppered across various neighborhoods, from Brookside to Cherry Street.  Fab Lab provides cutting-edge design and fabrication technologies.   Additionally, other neighborhoods are on the tipping point of Brady-like transformations, notably the Pearl District and the East Village, the latter home to the Creative Room, a collective workspace for people working in creative industries.

These recent pushes for public and private redevelopment with an eye towards culture and the creative class are healthy and productive.  But the city and state governments have far more work to do to make Tulsa a hospitable place for artists to live and work and nonprofits to thrive.  A bill currently in the state’s House of Representatives threatens to eliminate the autonomy of the Oklahoma Arts Council and jeopardize significant amounts of funding for the arts.  Such eliminations could be devastating.  If funding and community support can survive, Tulsa’s ability to enrich artists and audiences will continue to grow.

I have a personal wish for the arts in Tulsa, one that admittedly may stem from my status as a relative newcomer: to see more interaction with what is happening beyond the city’s borders.  I believe local artists could benefit from increasing their awareness of what is being made, experienced, and discussed in other places.  Organizations can serve those same artists by opening up dialogues and exchanges with their counterparts in neighboring cities and states.  I see these efforts being done successfully by the Oklahoma Visual Arts Council (OVAC), one of the few organizations working hard to bridge gaps, for example, between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, two cities geographically close but psychically distant.   Tulsa is situated midway between Kansas City and Dallas, both centers of dynamic, cutting-edge arts scenes.  Engagement with places like that would not only broaden our horizons, but promote the great things that are going on here to others, not to mention move us towards raising the city’s profile on a national stage.  Tulsa is closer than ever to being “discovered” as a hidden cultural jewel, and to showing the rest of the nation what many people here already know.

Lauren Ross is the Nancy E. Meinig Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa.

Point of Origin

  • No results yet!