Oklahoma City, once home to some aging sculptures and where murals were rarely seen, now is getting national recognition as a mecca for public art.
The City of Oklahoma City itself has a collection of public art insured at a value of $16 million. Downtown civic leaders, meanwhile, have funded murals, multi-media and sculptures throughout the urban core while curated art districts are starting to pop up across the city. And as part of the city’s 1% for arts ordinance, millions more will be spent on public art as part of MAPS 4 projects spread out across the city.
The transformation of this Plains city drew the attention of readers of USA Today who named Oklahoma City the top community for public art after it was included among cities nominated by a panel of USA Today editors and expert advisers who described the city as “a veritable outdoor gallery.”
Such kudos followed years of efforts by artists, patrons and civic leaders who found ways not just to fund public art but also to build the organizational support necessary to provide opportunities for artists to make money with their profession and continue to make Oklahoma City their home.
How OKC started investing in public art
Hundreds of works of public art are on display in curated districts and through creations commissioned by the City of Oklahoma City and the non-profit Downtown OKC Initiatives. The city alone owns more than 215 pieces, including works at the Oklahoma City Zoo, the Myriad Gardens and Will Rogers World Airport.
That number does not include dozens if not hundreds of pieces of privately commissioned public art outside of businesses and homes.
Robbie Kienzle oversees an office at City Hall dedicated to overseeing public art reviews, installation and funding not just involving city-owned commissions but outdoor art opportunities across the city.
“When I first took over when the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs was created, we would have Arts Commission meetings we had to cancel because we had nothing to approve. Now we routinely have at minimum three private projects each month, sometimes five or more.”
Public art in OKC got off to a slow start
Longtime arts patron Jim Tolbert remembers an Oklahoma City that was home to mostly traditional sculptures of people and events and little to no murals.
An array of sculptures and public art, including an arch similar to the St. Louis Arch, were added to the state fairgrounds in the 1960s and 1970s (the arch and many others have been taken down over the past 20 years).
“The Legend of the Great Westerner,” a 33-foot-high, 19-ton sculpture of Buffalo Bill Cody on his horse Brigham, dedicated in 1977, still greets travelers on Interstate 44 passing the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
The sculpture is one of several created by Leonard McMurray, a sculptor described as the state’s own “Michelangelo” by the Oklahoma Arts Council. Other significant works included the 89er at Couch Drive Park, sculptures of aviator Wiley Post and astronaut Thomas Stafford, and the sculpture of the late longtime chamber executive Stanley Draper that greets visitors to City Hall.
“Years ago, the Arts Council took a poll about what the public thought about the community and the results were not good,” Tolbert said. “The citizens themselves didn’t think this is a very good place to live. That was shocking to people, and it was motivation for what we’ve done to change the view of citizens of their own community.”
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Those efforts include the now frequently told tale of how the original Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), passed in 1993, sparked a revival of the city that is ongoing. City leaders chose to include public art with several of the MAPS projects that included the “Inclined” sculpture along the Bricktown Canal and the six “History of Bricktown” mosaic tile murals displayed outside the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
Those investments led the way to the city council’s passing the 1% for arts ordinance, passed in 2009, which dictates 1% of the cost of any building, facility, trail or park built by the city goes to fund public art.
“The turning point was getting 1% for art mandated,” Tolbert said. “First, they created the Arts Commission. Getting the 1% for art was very difficult.”
Kienzle’s office oversees the 1% for art projects, assists other public trusts and city-related interests in planning for their projects, issues calls to artists for public art pieces and crafting display agreements that seek to ensure public art is maintained.
Such concerns grew as aging public sculptures deteriorated; the base panels cracked on an Air Force monument created by McMurray and displayed at Kerr Park since 1964. Several other pieces at Kerr Park fell into disrepair as Kerr-McGee, once a civic giant, declined in the 1990s and eventually was bought out by Anadarko Petroleum in Houston.
“Donations was one of the first things we looked at,” Kienzle said. “We didn’t want to burden the city with unnecessary maintenance when it wasn’t a part of our collection. I try to get the donor to consider putting it on loan, especially when it requires a lot of maintenance.”
OKC has become a ‘veritable outdoor gallery’
“Oklahoma City might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about street art, but this city has become a veritable outdoor gallery,” USA Today wrote. “Start your explorations in the Plaza District before continuing on to the Western Avenue corridor and Bricktown.”
All three places recommended by USA Today are home to curated collections that have spread across the city following the example set by Downtown OKC Initiatives, a non-profit created by Downtown OKC Partnership.
Jane Jenkins, CEO of Downtown OKC Partnership, estimates the organization has spent $400,000 on public art, which includes temporary displays and performance art.
Downtown Initiatives was originally created to accept grants from foundations which couldn’t send funding to the parent organization because it was not a 501c3 non-profit. The fund was used in the same way to deposit proceeds from the annual Dean A. McGee Awards ceremony.
“We let the fund accumulate some money so we could do something with it,” Jenkins said. “Our first mural was the Jason Pawley mural on the underpass at Reno Avenue into Bricktown. We had it in our budget as maintenance to paint it.”
Pawley was already known for his murals in the Plaza District and along Western Avenue. The decision to pay Pawley to paint his mural, “Cultivation,” on the previously white walls followed previous commissions by the Centennial Commission to artist Bob Palmer and students at UCO to paint long murals on both sides of the same BNSF Railway viaduct.
Story continues below.
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Those murals were among the first done downtown, but not the last. Downtown Initiatives commissioned three more BNSF Railway viaduct underpasses at Sheridan Avenue, Main Street and NE 2.
The Bricktown Canal, already home to commissions by the city’s original MAPS program and the Centennial Commission, became a popular spot for more art donated by Downtown Initiatives.
That work, in turn, inspired privately funded public art, including the transformation of the previously green and yellow Bricktown Canal water taxis.
Kris Kanaly was painting “Abstract Passages” on the BNSF Railway viaduct at Main Street when the water taxi operator, now owner, Chad Huntington, discussed how they might turn the boats into floating murals.
“We discussed it again with him in earnest during the 2019 celebration of the Bricktown Canal’s 20th anniversary and began working on a plan to do it during the 2019-2020 off-season,” Huntington said.
“We felt it was simply time to freshen the look of our operation. While we understand that after 20-plus years our familiar yellow and green boats have become iconic to some, we also believe that there is much wisdom in the Will Rogers quote ‘Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.’”
Huntington acknowledges the changes “are radical.”
“We are proud of that,” Huntington said. “We believed in what the Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership and the Bricktown District was doing when it very intentionally lobbied the City of Oklahoma City to change the public art ordinance for Bricktown and allow more artistic freedom related to public art installation.”
Huntington commissioned Kanaly to paint the first boat to create a template for future artists. At the same time, a second boat was painted by artist Dusty Gilpin.
“Both are wild, and fun, and almost nothing alike,” Huntington said. “It’s fun to watch heads turn when the art boat slides past.”
More than 20 years have passed since the transformation of the city into a public art destination started. Some projects represent team efforts between Kienzle’s office, Downtown Initiatives and the Oklahoma Mural Syndicate led by Kanaly.
Andy Burnett and Mike Beffort, developers of West Village along Film Row, worked with Downtown Initiatives to do a charrette with local artists to come up with ideas for a large concrete wall of the development’s west garage.
“Parking garages are ugly,” Burnett said. “We always try to hide our parking garages by wrapping them with apartments or office space. In a perfect world you’d never see the garage.”
That option wasn’t available at West Village.
“To add a proper facade to a garage is also really expensive,” Burnett said. “We decided early on to focus on art and greenery instead of bricks and windows. The idea was to turn a giant concrete wall from a liability into something whimsical and fun.”
The developers went big, commissioning artist Denise Duong to create 40-foot-tall murals on two sides of the West Village garage at 927 W Sheridan Ave. The $50,000 mural showcases Duong’s increasingly popular playful style.
Burnett said the money was well spent and helps his development stand out.
“I’ve always loved Denise’s work,” Burnett said. “I love the human side of it … life in her own form.”
‘Anywhere I go there is an awesome mural or sculpture‘
The Oklahoma Mural Syndicate has expanded its reach across the state, but locally, its impact goes beyond the Plaza District and has inspired other districts to create their own curated public art.
The former old town of Britton, now emerging as a historic district, was recently given some color with the Aug. 8 Sunny Dayz Festival dedicated to addressing artists dealing with inequality based on age, race and gender.
Tiffany McKnight, one of the more than 30 artists who participated in the mural festival, sees an exciting time ahead for artists with growing opportunities and appreciation for public art.
“I feel like almost anywhere I go there is an awesome mural or sculpture,” McKnight said. “I’ve had the opportunity to design murals in Automobile Alley’s Door Tour, Plaza Walls, the With Love Project, and Bricktown just in the past year.”
McKnight is among a group of artists trying to educate a public that enjoys posting photos of the murals on social media without crediting their creators.
“Public art takes hours of planning, designing, and marketing to get our work out there,” McKnight said. “Most muralists and artists I know are small owned businesses or entrepreneurs and our work is often a lifeline for our livelihood. We just ask that the community acknowledges the work they are sharing or using and view our artistic creations as a direct extension of our business.”
McKnight also sees improvement, but with more focus needed, in the diversity of artists and communities chosen for future works. In addition to the Sunny Dayz murals, recent projects have included the With Love murals at the Market at Eastpoint in east Oklahoma City and curated public art in Capitol Hill and SW 29.
MAPS 4 ensures the spread of public art won’t slow anytime soon with projects to include parks and trails across the city and several area beautification areas. Kienzle is currently planning for public art as part of construction of a new arena at the state fairgrounds. The budget for a MAPS 4 multi-use stadium includes $833,000 for public art.
“OKC is definitely a hot spot for public art now,” McKnight said. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve traveled from out of state just to see our excellent collection of public art. It’s a very exciting time to witness this progress take place in our city.”
Staff writer Steve Lackmeyer is a 31-year reporter, columnist and author who covers downtown Oklahoma City, related urban development and economics for The Oklahoman. Contact him at [email protected] Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.