Very early in our City’s life, the arts were revered and celebrated by the civic leaders of the day. Within a couple of decades, the bedrock arts organizations had been created, many of which still anchor the cultural life of Oklahoma City. All have evolved and adapted and some have merged together, but the intention of our founders remains as powerful as ever. The arts in Oklahoma City are to be celebrated, and accessible to all.
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s roots trace to early statehood efforts of the Oklahoma Art League and Art Renaissance Club, organizations concerned with art education for a young city. Over time, more formal efforts began with a Works Progress Administration (WPA) Experimental Gallery, which was open to the public. The Museum transitioned from a federally funded gallery to a private institution when it was incorporated on May 18, 1945.
The Museum today is the synthesis of two predecessors, the Oklahoma Art Center, itself an outgrowth of the WPA Experimental Gallery, and the Oklahoma Museum of Art. Although both institutions were committed to collecting, public programs, and exhibitions, a depressed economy following the downturn in the energy industry during the 1980s challenged the city’s ability to support two institutions and led to a merger of the two museums in 1989. Museum leaders seized the opportunity to bring a new Oklahoma City Museum of Art to maturation as a single, financially secure entity.
Led by a $14.5 million capital grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation and by an extraordinary outpouring of support from more the 500 foundations, corporations and individual donors, the $40 million goal was reached to build and endow the new museum, entirely with private funds. In March of 2002, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Donald W. Reynolds Visual Arts Center, opened to critical acclaim. The Museum now attracts more than 125,000 visitors each year with its permanent collection, a cycle of temporary exhibitions, inventive education opportunities, international film program, Museum Store and Museum Café.
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art is one of the leading art institutions in the region whose diverse collection features highlights from North America, Europe and Asia, with particular strengths in American art and postwar abstraction. The permanent collection also boasts one of the world’s largest public collections of Dale Chihuly glass, a major collection of photography by Brett Weston and the definitive museum collection of works by the Washington Color painter Paul Reed.
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
If you grew up in Oklahoma, you likely took field trips to what was then called the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Maybe you’d start with a viewing of its giant, beautifully sad sculpture “The End of the Trail,” followed by a tour through galleries, gaze at some ornate saddles and then, finally, after a sack lunch, down the stairs you’d go. In the basement, there it was: Prosperity Junction, the little Western town, ready for adventure.
Prosperity Junction is still there, along with glorious art, internationally-acclaimed events and a dual focus on Western art and history. It’s one of Oklahoma City’s cultural behemoths, and its ability to evolve and reimagine itself is why.
In the early 1950s Chester A. Reynolds, of Kansas City, became concerned that there was a loss of Western heritage and so campaigned to create an institution that would honor the men and women who settled the American West. Proposals arrived from scores of cities vying to be the home of the new facility. Oklahoma City won the designation with its donation of property on Persimmon Hill.
The National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center was incorporated in 1955 and was designed to represent 17 western states. A national competition was held for the building design, which was won by Begrow and Brown of Birmingham, Michigan, with an eighty-thousand-square-foot, modernistic concept. It featured a roofline of white-peaked sections that suggested tents pitched on the prairie. The museum was opened to the public on July 26, 1965.
During ten years of fundraising and building construction, the organization formalized its hall-of-fame orientation. As early as 1955 the Rodeo Historical Society, operating under the auspices of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, began inducting honorees into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. Then in 1961 the first Western Heritage Awards were presented for the best in Western film, literature, and music, and inductions were made into the Great Westerners Hall of Fame and the Western Performers Hall of Fame. With the completion of the building in 1965, the hall of fame concept was modified into a full-blown museum focusing on Western art.
The art emphasis intensified in 1973 with the organization of the National Academy of Western Art, which operated under the museum's auspices. That organization conducted an annual, juried exhibition to showcase Western art and introduce promising young artists to the public. The event included workshops and prizes for the best in various artistic categories and also allowed the museum to buy one of the exhibit’s works, dubbed the Prix de West purchase. By the late 1980s, the art emphasis had developed one of the finest Western art collections in the nation, including works by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, William R. Leigh, and numerous others. In addition, the museum is generally recognized as having the best contemporary Western art collection in the world. To showcase collections, exhibits, and events, in 1970 Persimmon Hill magazine began publication.
Between 1991 and 1997, the original facility was renovated and an additional 140,000 square feet added, bringing the museum up to 220,000 square feet. The Western art focus was retained, but a significant history component was added. The new building included Windows to the West, five monumental, eighteen-by-forty-six-foot triptychs depicting Western landscapes by Oklahoma-born artist Wilson Hurley.
Physical expression brought with it a change in approach. Board membership was expanded to include eligibility from the entire United States, a formal endowment was established, and research capabilities were expanded with the formalization of the Donald C. and Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center. The National Academy of Western Art was reorganized and renamed the Prix de West Invitational Exhibition. An extensive education program was established, including professional adult art workshops and a variety of children's programs. Several annual events celebrating the nation's Western heritage were inaugurated. Then on November 16, 2000, the institution's name was formally changed to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, more accurately reflecting its mission.
Arts Council Oklahoma City
Like many community arts organizations around the country, Arts Council Oklahoma City was created in the mid-1960s. Congress had just established the National Endowment for the Arts whose intention was to provide funding for the arts across the country. At the same time, the states began to establish state arts councils that would be responsible for passing the arts funds through to appropriate arts-related nonprofit organizations in all areas of their state.
Arts Council Oklahoma City was incorporated and received its tax-exempt status in 1967. Marion DeVore was the first president. The fledgling nonprofit began with the general concept of an organization whose members would be representatives of the established arts agencies in Oklahoma City – large and small.
Frank Ratka, the Symphony’s general manager, had the idea to stage an arts festival to generate publicity and interest in the Arts Council, while also serving as a sales outlet for artists and a new and free venue for the public to enjoy the visual and performing arts. The primary goal, though, was to make money to help support additional art projects and services. The date of the Festival was set to take place in March, about three weeks from the day of the meeting approving it.
From Arts Council Oklahoma City website: “Marion DeVore asked the Symphony and Art Center boards to lend us a total of $7,500 to pay initial expenses of the Festival. There was a major scramble to put the festival together. Aileen Frank, Marilyn Myers and Marion DeVore begged artists to participate, and most of them thought it was a crazy idea to have their work hung outside, but we managed to get several to try it out. Every member of the board was engaged in the event. One group was in charge of making sandwiches to sell, another group put on a very entertaining melodrama in the Pink Pony tent and others put up the tents, sold soft drinks, collected money, etc. This five-day event was the beginning of what is now one of the largest, most successful and best-organized Festivals in the country.”
In the past 50 years, Arts Council Oklahoma City has grown to present some of the community’s favorite events and performances, including Opening Night and Sunday Twilight Concert Series. The Arts Council’s All Access Arts teaches Oklahoma City’s youngest and most under-served artists to dance, sing, sculpt, paint, create and interact with professionals of their crafts. Art Moves and Out of the Box bring diverse entertainment to downtown Oklahoma City’s busy streets.
Something huge is happening in Automobile Alley. Perhaps you’ve driven past the glimmering façade rising from the earth like some beautiful creature about to spread its wings. It’s the new home of Oklahoma Contemporary, the culmination of more than three decades of strategic work on the part of the leadership and board. The result? A contemporary arts powerhouse, a national player in the art world and, true to its mission, an accessible art experience for every Oklahoman.
Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, formed at the Fairgrounds in 1989 as City Arts Center by Christian Keesee and Kirkpatrick Foundation Director Marilyn Myers, has always been singularly committed to providing the community with quality, accessible and affordable arts programming and education. Oklahoma Contemporary educates Oklahomans through adult classes and workshops, art camps and classes for local youth, art exhibitions, lectures and additional educational programming. Oklahoma Contemporary was the recipient of the first grant ever awarded by the Kirkpatrick Family Fund and plays a key role in the development of Oklahoma City’s visual arts landscape. Admission to exhibitions is free to the public.
But now…now things are getting really exciting. The new home of Oklahoma Contemporary opened in mid-March 2020 and in one fell swoop, ushered in the future. Even the building is art. Designed by internationally-acclaimed Oklahoma firm Rand Elliott Architects, the new building, which inspired the exhibition’s theme of light and place, features a luminous façade that captures Oklahoma’s ever-changing weather and light. The grounds also include a renovated historic warehouse (to house ceramics and fiber studios and metal and wood sculpture studios) and a three-block arts park, providing space for outdoor exhibitions, education programs and public performances.
Titled Bright Golden Haze, the inaugural exhibition nods both to the storied quality of light and space in Oklahoma and the unique role of light in shaping environment and identity in contemporary art globally. The titular phrase is familiar, because it’s a trio of words pulled from “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” the opening song in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma.”
The opening month will be a smorgasbord of events, immersive activities and programming, including camps, classes and workshops, a dedicated Learning Gallery, artist talks and discussions with major figures and participating artists, such as Jen Lewin and Abelardo Morell, and performances responding to the themes in Bright Golden Haze.
A panel discussion of indigenous artists, including Yatika Fields and Marianne Nicolson, will offer their perspectives on light and landscape. Following that, Studio School will offer classes and workshops year-round for teens and adults. Taught by experienced art educators and university faculty, classes will provide a creative outlet as well as an opportunity to learn and expand skills, improve techniques and experiment with familiar and new media.
“Bright Golden Haze” is made up of installations that create a sense of place through light, including a specially commissioned version of Leo Villareal’s newest work, Star Ceiling; a sculpture by Josh Tonsfeldt that utilizes dismantled LED screens to explore the “place” of the internet; and Alicia Eggert’s The Sun, a celebration of the poetry of the Flaming Lips.
In homage to the deeply influential Light and Space Movement artists, viewers will find recent works by James Turrell and Robert Irwin and pieces by the movement’s artistic successors, such as Camille Utterback. Utterback’s interactive installation engages two viewers directly, who respond to one another’s movement to create a digital “place” on a shared screen.
Indigenous perspectives on light and place are present as well from a site-specific installation by Marianne Nicolson (Dzawada'enuxw First Nation) that provides an alternative view of the Milky Way to a new landscape painting commissioned by Oklahoma Contemporary from Oklahoma artist Yatika Fields(Osage/Cherokee/Creek).
In addition to providing a world-class facility for exhibitions, performance and education and a breathtaking addition to the OKC skyline, it will become a “creative commons,” a place for our community to gather, create and experience art.
Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition
A relative youngster among Oklahoma City’s arts organizations, Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition (OVAC) was formed in 1988, with a very specific purpose, one which has elevated the careers of hundreds of Oklahoma City artists including Factory Obscura founders Kelsey Karper (former OVAC assistant director) and Hugh Meade, OVAC artist. Former OVAC Executive Director Julia Kirt now represents Oklahoma’s Senate District 30.
The Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition (OVAC) helps artists realize their potential through education, exposure and funding. Organized in 1988, OVAC is a non-profit organization that supports visual artists living and working in Oklahoma. OVAC promotes public interest in the arts and helps people of all ages understand the visual arts.
It maintains job boards and holds training for working artists. Its Artist Survival Kit (ASK) offers professional development for Oklahoma artists. Through Workshops, Office Hours and Artist Forums, ASK provides artists with the necessary information to succeed in their careers and build a sense of community among diverse artists from across the state.
OVAC events have become highlights of Oklahoma City’s social life, for artists and art lovers alike. The annual 12x12 Party, held typically in September, brings 175 of Oklahoma’s finest artists together with local restaurants and live music.
For 12×12, each artist must create a work that conforms to the dimensions of twelve-by-twelve inches. The artwork is sold in a surprising silent and blind auction, meaning bidders will not know what others have bid. Bids for each piece begin at $175. Collectors who fear losing a piece of art in the auction may “Buy It Now” to trump the auction.
Its Momentum event celebrates young artists, age 30 and under, working in diverse media. The exhibition presents a diversified look at young artistic talent in Oklahoma. It’s a three-day immersion into film, performance, new media, installation, music, and more.
OVAC offers artist grants, fellowships and project sponsorships and a photography studio open to use by member artists. OVAC believes that art is important to all communities and that Oklahoma should be a place where visual artists have what they need to thrive.
From OVAC’s strategic plan: Art is essential. Artists and the work they produce bring communities together and enrich our life experience. Art provides value. Oklahoma visual artists and their works are worthy of our support, promotion and development. Art raises the quality of life and participation in the arts improves the lives of individuals and the communities in which they live. Art creates a positive economic impact. When Oklahoma’s visual artists thrive, so do the communities where they live and work. The arts have a direct and positive impact on communities.