Lest anyone forget that creativity is not just something housed in a museum, written in a book or encoded on a CD or DVD, there is Living Arts of Tulsa to give us a figurative slap in the face from time to time.
Probably the most remarkable aspect of the organization is that at the ripe old age of 40 it has remained as true to its original mission as it was when a love child born in 1969.
And now, with the opening of its new location in the Greenwood District, it is poised to embark on a new era of "providing contemporary art experiences, training and encouragement to people of all ages, groups and races in the community -- a platform for contemporary thought and new ideas... a creative force."
"This is going to be the contemporary arts center for Tulsa," said Artistic Director Steve Liggett. "It's going to have the most innovative, creative events that we've ever had. We have enough space that it can accommodate a bigger audience, so we're going to try to grow our audiences. It has three education spaces instead of one, so we're really going to focus on educating people."
The new Living Arts, in the Greenwood District at 307 S. Brady, abutting the future ONEOK Field on the strip of planned development that will connect the Blue Dome District to Greenwood to the Brady Arts District to the BOK Center, boasts 13,000 square feet of usable gallery, office and education space.
"I really want, and I've always wanted, people, when they walk through the front door, ... (to be) amazed and have such a sense of wonder about what we're showing them that they have to find out what's going on here," said Liggett.
What has been going on at Living Arts is just that--an amazing demonstration of current thinking, current work, new media and performance art that the mainstream in Tulsa has only recently come to appreciate, if not quite understand.
Living arts was founded by Chuck Tomlins, Max Mitchell, Carl Coker (all visual arts professors at the University of Tulsa in 1969) and Virginia Myers (who taught piano and new music around Tulsa, including at TU. It was their perception that the city needed a center that fostered self expression and current arts. It was their perception and vision that gave the life to Living Arts.
In its 40-year history, Living Arts has begged, borrowed and rented space--sometimes even going homeless--to give local artists a public showing. Former homes include downtown's Central Library, The Center Gallery (formerly in the Williams Forum) and All Souls Unitarian Church.
For the past five years, Living Arts has been at home in a 6,000-square-foot building at 308 S. Kenosha--adequate space for exhibiting work and housing two small offices and three studios, but not quite enough for Living Arts to grow into the contemporary arts center that its leader for 18 years, Liggett, dreamed it to be.
But in the past five years, Living Arts has captured the attention of national arts endowment The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts as well as local philanthropists George Kaiser, and George Kravis.
It was due to the organization's growth and reputation due mostly to its annual New Genre Festival (a celebration of innovative, contemporary arts that draws exhibitors from all over the world) that a representative from the Warhol Foundation approached Living Arts about applying for one or more of the foundation's many grants.
The Warhol Foundation was established to "support the creation, presentation and documentation of contemporary visual art, particularly work that is experimental, under-recognized, or challenging in nature."
Living Arts applied for and was rewarded a $60,000 grant in 2004, which it used over a three-year period for the New Genre festival and its Myers Gallery programming.
A year and a half ago, the organization received a $100,000 capacity-building initiative to be used to pay artists, develop new technology, and for the new building.
Most recently, Living Arts applied for and was rewarded a $100,000 programming grant to go toward the next three years of the New Genre Festival and the Myers Gallery Exhibits.
But it was the George Kaiser Family Foundation that was most responsible for making Living Arts' move to the former Bed Check Building possible.
Liggett said that when his current landlord discovered that Living Arts was looking for new space, he encouraged Liggett to make contact with the Kaiser group which has had a big role in recent developments in the Brady Arts District as well as the Greenwood District.
Living Arts first made contact with GKFF in 2006. When the non-profit began helping Living Arts scout a new residence, it originally suggested the gallery occupy a portion of GKFF's half of the Mathews Warehouse, a Kaiser-funded project, which will house Philbrook Museum of Art's Eugene B. Adkins Collection, a space in which the museum can exhibit contemporary art and art programs for The University of Tulsa and outreach programs for Gilcrease Museum.
Later, the foundation suggested Living Arts should solely occupy a different building and, about eight months ago, suggested the Bed Check.
"We walked across the street from Wallace Engineering and they (representatives from GKFF) had a group of keys in their hands and said, 'We have something we want to show you,'" recalled Liggett. "And I went in and I thought, 'It's this space? Whoa.' I've always loved that building, and so have a lot of people."
GKFF purchased the building this year and plans to enter into a five-year lease contract with Living Arts for the bottom floor. The top floor has been renovated into eight apartments, which have been leased by 13 Teach for America teachers, who began their first day at Tulsa Public Schools last week.
Plans for Living Arts and Liggett Studio's current locations are still undecided. Living Arts will maintain its lease at 308 S. Kenosha until the move is complete, and its board of directors is determining whether or not it will continue the lease beyond that point.
Liggett said he'd like to develop the space into more artists' studios, with a central, shared space used exclusively for developing new artworks, a project he'd like to call "The Forum for New Works."
Within the lab setting, artists who propose new interdisciplinary works can work on the development of those over the course of three to four weeks free of charge with the potential of presenting the works at the new space.
Stanton Doyle, senior program officer for GKFF, said of its support of the contemporary arts organization, "GKFF recognizes Living Arts as the premiere presenter of contemporary visual and performing arts in Tulsa, as well as an important educational organization for a variety of art forms."
GKFF provides Living Arts with partial salary support for Liggett and Litton-Clark (Living Arts' new administrative director) programming support and has been the epicenter of opportunity in Living Arts' move to Greenwood.
Heart of the Warehouse District
The new Living Arts building, built in 1920, underwent a complete renovation about 10 years ago when it was owned by the Bed Check Corporation, a medical and hospital equipment supplier.
"The building was already is in fantastic shape," said Liggett. "It has mostly new electric, heating, plumbing and sprinkler systems."
The building' ground floor is divided into two large, open spaces, each about 6,500 or 7,000 square feet, with concrete floors, steel supports and high ceilings.
Living Arts could have, in theory, been able to move into the building as it was when GKFF bought it and resume operations. But, in order to transform the building into a center for contemporary arts, it enlisted the help of the community.
At the behest of Living Arts board member and retired architect Bob Sober, Living Arts invited young architects, engineers, interior designers and artists to meet organization officials, tour the building and help determine how it would be renovated.
"(Sober) thought it would be a really good idea to engage some younger architects who really want to get their hands on some projects, and also some interior designers and artists," said Litton-Clark.
Sober, Litton-Clark and Liggett divided the total renovation of the building into 30 specific projects. Sober led those who attended the meeting on a tour of the building, pointed out specifics of what needed to be done and expressing the overall vision for the center.
(Yours truly attended this meeting and signed up, along with Litton-Clark and incoming Living Arts board president Chris Ganong, to help with the renovation of the men's, women's and family/handicapped restrooms.)
"The cool thing is, not only did we get a lot of very interesting, different ideas that we didn't have to pay for, but we also engaged the community," said Clark. "We want the community to have some ownership in this, and so that in and of itself has been very rewarding for team members and for us."
The east half of the building will house gallery space and a gallery prep area. There will be two galleries, one at 2,500 square feet and one at 3,200 square feet, and generally speaking, one will be used to exhibit installation art forms and the other for two-dimensional art & performance-based art forms.
"We plan to expand the New Music Program to host several more concerts of experimental music each year," Liggett said.
Living Arts was recently accepted into the National Performance Network, which provides support for established and emerging artists in dance, music, theatre, performance art, puppetry and spoken word, and Liggett has expressed a desire to expand and develop the organization's performance art offerings.
NPN will help support Living Arts as it offers public workshops led by established national and international performance artists. Next year's workshops will occur during, before and/or after Living Arts' annual New Genre festival.
The west half of the building will be used mostly for education and office space. Three education stations will take up the perimeter, one space devoted to visual and mixed media art, one to performance and dance and one to video and new media. Living Arts staff offices will be in the middle of the space, and there will also be a kitchen, bar and lounge area, as well as restrooms, on that side of the building.
In nearly each of the four corners of the building, as well as other open, communal spaces, Living Arts will exhibit installation and small performance works.
"I'm really excited about this area here in the southwest corner because that's the window you see when you're driving up. That is going to be an installation spot for artists," said Liggett as he pointed to the floor plan.
Then he pointed to other areas of the building, including a dock at the southeast corner, where installations and performances are possible and would easily be seen by passersby on the street.
Swinging for the Fences
The total project is estimated at costing $200,000. Phase One, which will be completed by the time Living Arts opens its doors on Aug. 28, includes the walls in both galleries, the hanging/electrical grid, lighting in the galleries, moveable walls, part one of the restroom design, track lighting and the electrical components of the gallery walls, costing $101,000.
Phases Two and Three, estimated at about $53,000 and $36,000 respectively, don't yet have projected completion dates. Phase Two includes the gallery prep area, the kitchen and bar, signage on the north and south entrances, performance arts lighting, office/conference/reception rooms, a mobile performance sound system and a gallery sound system.
Phase Three includes part two of the restroom design (part one involves chalkboard paint that will allow patrons/restroom users to create their own art on the bathroom walls; part two involves monitors that will display video art as well as broadcast news and events related to Living Arts), guard rails, stair design, outdoor sculptures, the multimedia education area, the performance education area, the lounge and portable risers and seating.
"A lot of things don't have set deadlines and will be constructed as funded," said Litton-Clark. "What we do have deadlines on is the gallery space; that's our priority."
"One of the things I've learned from all of these projects is that you have to get the ownership of the community in the space itself," said Liggett. "Sometimes, if you try to raise a bunch of money and get it perfect before you move in, sometimes -- at least, it's been my experience -- you never get there. My experience has been that you grow it incrementally, which is what we're going to do."
Kinslow Keith and Todd is the architecture firm GKFF is using for the exterior of the building and the areas where the ground floor and the second floor connect, like the stairwell and elevator. KBI is the contractor.
When asked how they feel about Living Arts being next door to the Drillers new baseball stadium, Liggett and Clark exchanged a glance and a discreet smile.
"You know that scene in Oklahoma! and that song that goes, 'Oh, the cowboys and the farmers should be friends...'? Well, I think it's 'the artist and the sportsman should be friends," Liggett said. "You know, I hope that we break down stereotypes somewhat by being near the sports arena."
"With the baseball stadium, since it's such a different crowd of people, I think it's good that we're going to be so close so that they can see us from their seats, basically. It's exposing our art and our mission to people who might otherwise not know that we're here," said Clark.
"And I think it'll be good for them (Driller Stadium) also, because a lot of people who just come to Living Arts or Philbrook might take in a baseball game," said Liggett.
Liggett also said he's excited about being in the Greenwood District and in such close proximity to the Brady Arts District, where Living Arts was once at home. The organization kept shop at 19 E. Brady from 1995 to 2000.
"I've always had an affinity toward Greenwood," Liggett said. "I look at Living Arts as being a kind of bridge between Brady and Greenwood as an (organization) that does multi-racial programming and intentionally does African American programming. So I'm hoping to tie in more with the Greenwood area."
According to Liggett, once plans were finalized for the construction of ONEOK Field, the Stadium Trust and the Tulsa Community Foundation, with which Kaiser is heavily involved, began buying properties and land surrounding the stadium in order to ensure that their use was in line with the ultimate goal for the area's development.
Any proposed development had to clear the Stadium Trust before plans could be made and ground broken, said Liggett.
"George Kaiser had a vision of what Brady (Greenwood) should and is going to be, and we're very honored that he saw us as part of that vision," said Liggett.
"The Brady/Greenwood area has been home to several arts and entertainment venues, organizations, studios and individual artists," said GKFF's Doyle. "It is at the roots of Tulsa's history; the first tent village was built in the area before the railroad came through. It was the home of Tulsa's first baseball park. Its existing activities, its history, its proximity to downtown, and its beautiful historic architecture make it something that can't be replicated anywhere else.
"GKFF and the Tulsa Beautification Foundation have worked for the last year with local residents, business owners and property owners, in Brady, Greenwood, Blue Dome and downtown to identify ways that the area can be enhanced to build connections between the various downtown destinations to encourage more pedestrian traffic, to support more business and residential development, and to build downtown Tulsa as a regional destination," Doyle continued.
"GKFF and TBF are working on developing a streetscape plan for the Brady and Greenwood stadium area to help build linkages between BOK Center, Brady, Greenwood and Blue Dome and the new stadium. GKFF is developing concepts for a 'town square' on Brady between Boston and Cincinnati... GKFF is also working with local engineers and the Tulsa Industrial Authority to develop some innovative energy projects in the area," he said.
Kudos and Kubos
To celebrate the opening of the new Living Arts and its 40-year anniversary, one of the organization's founders, Chuck Tomlins, has planned "Kubos-Tesseract: A Celebration of Living Arts' 40 Years" for Friday, Aug. 28 beginning at 6:30pm.
Kubos will be an interactive party incorporating all of Living Arts' varied endeavors: Music performance, African drumming, performance art, art cars, video and spoken word. There will also be an exhibit and video history of Living Arts' 40 years of operation.
Tickets to the event are $50, and guests are asked to meet at 308 S. Kenosha and participate in a symbolic processional to 307 E. Brady. There they will be met by installation and performance artists Brian Haas (Jacob Fred Jazz founder and musician, who will perform), Charlotte Rhea, Mark Wittig, Bryce Brimer and J.D. McPherson. To buy tickets, visit www.livingarts.org or call 585-1234.
Within a year, Liggett expects Living Arts will publish a history "book" (the term is used loosely; the exact format of the project is still yet to be decided) highlighting Living Arts' 40-year history.
The project came from the mind of former Living Arts board member Walt Kosty, who has spent the last few months delving deep into the organization's past to bring to light its long journey.
(Kosty asked this writer to be a part of the project, and so I've written the chapters that cover the past 10 years of that journey.)
"Forty years ago, Living Arts of Tulsa began a journey based upon a notion that, in Tulsa, as around the world, the arts needed a space in time to meet, meld and make art forms that were 'new,' different and thought-provoking," said Tomlins.
"For 40 years, this notion has ebbed and flowed, with or without a physical space, twisting, turning and testing the boundaries of pre-conceived notions of 'art.' Now, after 40 years, the opportunity to have an excellent space, touting the growth potential of a newly plowed field; rich and fertile, awaiting the new seeds to be sown, it is only appropriate that we should celebrate."
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