A request for a $25 million bond issue by the state Historical Society to help fund the construction of a new Tulsa museum was not granted by the state Legislature during its recently concluded session, but the agency's director said he is optimistic about the funding request's chances of success next year.
Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the state Historical Society, acknowledged that his agency's request for the money faced long odds this year as state lawmakers struggled to balance the state budget in the face of rapidly declining revenues.
"We, of course, were working on that until about four weeks ago," he said of his agency's lobbying efforts on behalf of the bond issue, which would have provided most of the funding for the proposed $33 million Oklahoma Pop Museum, which is a planned project for the Brady Arts District. The museum will highlight the state's contributions to popular culture.
"But there were no new bond issues passed. They only refinanced old ones and replaced transportation funds," Blackburn said, noting that the planned American Indian Cultural Center & Museum (in Oklahoma City) did not draw any state funding, either.
Blackburn said he was not discouraged by the denial of his agency's request, adding that it would try again next session.
"We're planning on opening a new museum," he said flatly.
Blackburn was joined in his lobbying efforts at the Capitol by Mike Neal, president of the Tulsa Metro Chamber, a strong supporter of the planned museum.
"We were really uncertain that this year there would be any kind of possibility at all of doing the bond issue because of the terrible condition the state was in," Neal said. "However, in the closing week of the session, there was a pretty significant attempt to do a bond issue for the Native American Cultural Center. And when that happened, we began to get excited about the possibility of getting the money for the Pop Museum in the Brady District."
Ultimately, the funding did not materialize for either project. But Neal said he was encouraged that the request came as close to succeeding as it did.
"I'm not discouraged at all," he said. "I think it is very evident that the Native American community and Oklahoma City leadership are going to push for another bond issue in the next legislative session, and I'm optimistic that if they do that museum, we'll have the opportunity to do a museum of similar significance in Tulsa."
Neal said his organization already has initiated conversations with local legislative leaders on that subject to set the stage for next year's session, and various chambers of commerce throughout northeast Oklahoma have begun to discuss their regional priorities for next year. He anticipates the Oklahoma Pop bond issue attracting a lot of attention through that process as the time approaches for the Tulsa Metro Chamber's Aug. 15 annual regional legislative summit, where those priorities will be determined.
"I'll be hoping that this will be one of those items that will come out in our top 10 (list of priorities) for the coming year," Neal said.
Blackburn said his agency won't start a formal fundraising effort for Pop until and unless the bond issue is approved, but he noted the project already has received a $1 million challenge grant from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and he continues to speak with representatives of other philanthropic organizations.
"Even if we had gotten the bond issue money, it probably would not change the way I'm going about the fundraising much because you've got to build those relationships first," he said.
He said work on a number of projects related to the planned museum will continue, adding that a film on Tulsa's contributions to all kinds of music, not just rock 'n' roll, is expected to be finished soon.
The Historical Society has three staff members working on Pop-related projects right now and has developed a two-page strategic plan to keep the proposal moving forward. He said that while the Legislature's unwillingness to approve the $25 million bond issue likely will impact the museum's originally planned completion date of summer 2013, it will not have much of an effect on other efforts.
"The difference the bond issue would have made is we would have started building additional staff right now," he said, with more manpower being devoted to the agency's video film crew and collections department.
"If I had the extra cash on the table, we just could have had a bigger team, and that would have sped it up."
Even so, he pointed to several other projects in the works right now that are related to the planned museum, a 45,000-square-foot facility that would focus on all aspects of pop culture in which Oklahomans have made their presence felt, including music, radio, television, performance venues, concerts, movies and Route 66.
First among them is the recent opening of a new exhibition at the state History Center in Oklahoma City called "The Uncanny Adventures of Okie Cartoonists," an examination of the role Oklahomans have played in the evolution of comic books, comic strips and editorial cartoons. Blackburn said the exhibition is a natural fit for Oklahoma Pop once it opens.
Another good fit, he said, is the History Center's currently running Starmaker: Jim Halsey and the Legends of Country Music, an exhibition focusing on the legendary Tulsan who built a talent agency with a client list featuring some of the most prominent names in the industry. Halsey already has promised his personal collection to Oklahoma Pop, Blackburn said.
He said the Historical Society also recently received a grant to create an exhibition focusing on the long-running television variety program Hee Haw, which featured the talents of 50 Oklahomans who were regulars or guest stars on the show throughout the years, including longtime Tulsa resident Roy Clark.
"That's working toward Pop," Blackburn said.
Another exhibition currently showing at the History Center, Another Hot Oklahoma Night: A Rock and Roll Exhibit, isn't destined for Oklahoma Pop anytime soon, Blackburn said. But his agency has begun negotiations with another museum to bring the show to Tulsa when it closes in Oklahoma City, he said. A formal announcement is expected in a month or two.
Blackburn said that exhibition received a major boost recently with the addition of the Gibson ES150 guitar played by Charlie Christian, the legendary jazz guitarist and innovator from Oklahoma City who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The guitar was held by a collector from Utah, and its authenticity has been verified by Gibson, the Nasvhille-based company that built the instrument, which features a distinctive single-coil pickup in the neck position that came to be known as the "Charlie Christian pickup."
"That's an example of the new bridges that we're building," Blackburn said. "That's what we're doing -- building bridges and preparing for a date when we break ground and hit the ground running."
That date, he said, is a little further away than he originally envisioned. Completion of Oklahoma Pop, Blackburn said, most likely won't come until 2014 now. The site of the museum is still to be determined, but he said the list of potential homes has been pared to three locations, and all three sites are in the Brady.
Oklahoma Pop will serve as the anchor for a series of museums planned for the area that are expected to have a far-reaching impact.
"I think it would do wonders to continue to develop our downtown," Neal said of the project. "It would build on both the historic and entertainment heritage of downtown, as well as continue to complement the significant development that's happening now in the Brady District. It would be a complement to the BOK Center, ONEOK Field and the convention center."
Oklahoma Pop also would spur new development, Neal believes.
"All these things build off another," he said. "It would be a great catalyst for continued development."
Neal said that while it's too early to speculate about what the next legislative session might bring, he thinks the momentum being generated on behalf of the museum now could contribute to an atmosphere of success later on.
"So we have an opportunity to be extremely proactive and collaborative," he said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with the state Historical Society. Bob Blackburn obviously has a great vision, and he has built museums all around the state. He has a great track record. It would be a pleasure to have something like this built in downtown Tulsa that would serve not just as a statewide draw, but a regional draw."
Blackburn expressed confidence that funding for the museum will come eventually, even as the state struggles to emerge from the recession.
"We're assuming we're going to do this," he said. "We've made a commitment to this. We're going to continue to build our collections, build bridges and develop new ideas for exhibits. All we need is funding."
Blackburn is so sure Oklahoma Pop will become a reality that he already is picking out a nearby apartment for himself so he'll have a place to stay when he comes to Tulsa for museum events.
"We've already launched this ship," he said. "We just have to make sure we have a home port once we get to the other end of the journey. We're not going to let this slow us down."
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