Art Works Blog

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts: A report from the 2011 Oklahoma Arts Conference

Text and photo by Joel Gavin, Director of Marketing and Communications, Oklahoma Arts Council

Conference attendees take part in the Mosaic Marathon. The mosaic will be installed as public art in downtown Tulsa.

Fall in Oklahoma is often defined by college football and the start to the NBA basketball season. During two recent days in October, however, hundreds of artists, arts managers, community development professionals, city leaders, and others from around Oklahoma turned their attention to the arts.

They came from remote areas like the Oklahoma panhandle, from rural towns like Hugo and Alva, and from revitalized urban areas like Oklahoma City’s Plaza District. Hundreds of Oklahomans descended on the state’s second largest city, Tulsa, for two days of sessions, panels, performances, and events scheduled during the annual Oklahoma Arts Conference. Each year the conference brings together the state’s arts and cultural industry for professional development and networking, but perhaps more than any other year the impact of this year’s conference went beyond anything tangible.

Since its inception five years ago, the conference has seen significant growth each year, and the 2011 conference was no different. With almost 30 percent more participants than the 2010 conference we continue to see a growing need for development opportunities in the arts in Oklahoma. More importantly is the noticeable increase in the synergy and enthusiasm for collaboration that has occurred each year. With budget cuts and economic uncertainty seemingly the norm these days, this year in particular seemed to be an important year for considering the focus of the conference. So with the confluence of need, excitement, and lingering economic challenges, the Arts Council arrived at this year’s conference theme---Greater than the Sum: Sharing a United Vision for the Arts.

As those of us in the arts and cultural industry are well aware, shifting our focus from our own events and programming to a broader awareness of ‘macro forces’ that will eventually affect us is difficult. But as Mary Kennedy McCabe, executive director of the Mid-America Arts Alliance and one of our general session speakers pointed out, organizations can’t wait until such forces are on our doorsteps to take action. McCabe’s message was followed by a similar one from Jennifer James, director of Oklahomans for the Arts, the new state arts advocacy organization and conference co-presenter. With this one-two punch of messages appealing to the hundreds in the Hyatt Regency ballroom to take action on arts advocacy, the tone of this year’s conference theme was almost set. The general session ended after it was ‘interrupted’ by a flash mob of state flag-waving fanatics who led everyone in singing the classic Broadway tune, “Oklahoma!”

Other events helped reiterate the message of unity and advocacy. An interactive art project was incorporated into the conference for the first time. With the City of Tulsa’s help, enough funds were raised to hire an artist and purchase materials to organize the “Mosaic Marathon.” Throughout the two days of non-stop happenings, we encouraged conference-goers to stop by the Mosaic Marathon room to add their own touch to the public art piece that will be installed near Tulsa’s downtown Brady Arts District. The design of the mosaic includes several offset circles of decreasing size within each other---a reference to both the various sizes of communities and organizations at the conference working together on the mosaic and to the state’s arts and cultural industry. 

Evening events allowed participants from around the state to experience the fledgling Brady Arts District to see first-hand how the district is revitalizing a once-blighted area. In addition to the new Hardesty Arts Center, currently under construction, conference-goers visited several gallery spaces in the district before ending their evening at the annual Café Kzany ‘talent’ show held this year at the nearby Living ArtSpace.

Two conference breakout sessions focused on advocacy, including a panel session of state legislators who explained ways to reach out and inform policymakers about the arts, and a session about the dos and don’ts of advocacy for nonprofit organizations. Sessions on marketing for artists were led by Alyson Stanfield, founder of the website, Art Biz Coach, and the popular blog Art Biz Blog. City planner Tom Barnett---who led nationally recognized efforts to transform Paducah, Kentucky, using the arts---presented sessions for community development.

Overall the 2011 Oklahoma Arts Conference seems to have accomplished much of what we set out to do. Feedback has been very positive. Based on an intuitive read of all that happened during the two days in Tulsa, the social media chatter, and other observation, the message of unity and advocacy seems to have resonated. Only time will tell as inspiration must be followed by action; however, if our read of the intangible benefits of the Oklahoma Arts Conference is an indication, the state’s arts and cultural industry seems to be on the right path.

Lastly, our conference is our biggest service and development opportunity for our constituents statewide---many of whom are from rural areas. Because of our NEA partnership grant, we are able to offer the conference for our constituents at a cost of only $50. Because we work in the arts we realize the importance of access, and the conference is a vital resource to which we feel all involved in the arts in Oklahoma should have access. Our thanks to the NEA for making the conference accessible, and making it possible for the Oklahoma arts and cultural industry to be greater than the sum of all parts!

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