Contrary to the belief of out-of-state Americans, whose perceptions of the Sooner State are tainted by embarrassing legislative decisions made at the capital, Oklahoma is indeed a state of culture and creativity.
That, this weekend, more than 1,000 artists will display their work in downtown Tulsa and upwards of 350,000 people will converge on the scene to view and buy it only proves that fact.
The Tulsa International Mayfest, Thursday-Sunday, May 19-22, and the Blue Dome Arts Festival, Friday-Sunday, May 20-22, together boast more than 1,000 local, national and international artists who set up shop on the streets of downtown Tulsa -- Mayfest's artists in the central business district, near Main Street and Third and Fourth Streets, and Blue Dome's in the Blue Dome District, near Second Street and Elgin Avenue -- displaying and selling work and wares.
Mayfest began as Jubilee in 1973 when the Junior League of Tulsa partnered with the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Philharmonic Society to co-celebrate the city's 50th anniversary and to make a gift to the citizens of Tulsa by way of an arts festival.
The goal in the beginning was to bring the visual and performing arts together and to make them accessible to a broader audience, especially for crowds that might not normally visit an art gallery or attend an orchestral concert at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
"The goal when Mayfest started was to expose art to Tulsans who wouldn't be interested in going to a gallery, to make it accessible to the general public," said Heather Pingry, Mayfest's executive director. "You have the ability to touch so many people you might not otherwise."
And the festival is still doing that -- as is Blue Dome's.
"Mayfest and Blue Dome have become perfect complementing festivals," Pingry said. "Between the two of them, no matter what kind of art you're interested in and no matter what your budget is, you can find something you love. If you can't find something you want to buy at these two festivals, then there's something wrong with you."
But the two weren't always complementing. Though Blue Dome Arts Festival is boasting its eighth year, the festival actually dates back to 2001, when local artists, led by clay worker Virginia Harrison, sought out an alternative to Mayfest.
During the same weekend as Mayfest in 2001, Harrison and others gathered in her Owen Park backyard for Clayfest, a festival of their own, with a combination "zoo/carnival/gallery" ambiance, as described by Harrison. They continued this way until 2004, when Harrison approached Blue Dome District real estate mogul Michael Sager about hosting the festival in his neck of downtown.
"I've always been involved in the arts, and when Virginia Harrison, Marjorie Atwood and Pam Hodges walked into my office and said they'd outgrown Virginia's backyard and did I think we could pull off an arts festival, I said, 'Let's do it,' and that was that," Sager told Urban Tulsa Weekly in 2007.
Though the Blue Dome festival is still a grassroots, bohemian effort, it has grown substantially over the past eight years and become a professional-level event.
"In the very beginning, Virginia Harrison and I said there were no rules, and we didn't know what we were asking for at the time," Sager said in a recent interview. "The first couple of years, the festival had no budget and a few supporters. We did it on $3,000 a year of budget."
There were no designated booths; "it was all really like a land run," Sager said.
The Blue Dome festival has grown to more than 200 artists and 40 performers from about 80 artists and just a handful of performers in just the past eight years.
Sarah Goss, director of the festival, said the Blue Dome Merchants Association, which organizes the event, expanded this year's festival to include artists from outside of Tulsa and even beyond Oklahoma.
When in Dome
The Blue Dome festival is now also open to retail sellers, in addition to artists selling original and handmade art. Both Blue Dome and Mayfest artists represent a diverse mastery of mediums, including painting, pottery, textile, jewelry, photography, woodwork, metal art and more.
The primary difference is that Blue Dome Arts Festival is open to anyone who wants to participate and is willing to pay the fee, while Mayfest's artists must apply and be selected through a competitive, juried process.
More than 400 artists from across the nation, and even a few outside of the country, applied to participate in Mayfest this year. They submitted three images of their art and one of their booth setup, along with descriptions of their work and an application fee.
A jury of three -- an artist, an art educator and an art businessperson -- reviewed the applications and scored them, based on the quality of work, on a scale of one to six, omitting the number three.
The selection process is blind, so the jurors know nothing about the artist, including where he or she is from, and choose the artists who participate based on their work.
Through that process, 120 artists were selected and the ones who weren't outright rejected were placed on a waiting list. Of the outdoor booth exhibitors, 5 to 10 percent are from the Tulsa area.
Mayfest also boasts five indoor galleries, all of which feature local artists only. In all, about 850 artists participate in Mayfest, and about 775 of them are local, Pingry said.
The Invitational Gallery, in the Williams Towers lobby, 2 W. Second St., features 100 local professional artist, each displaying two works. The Youth Art Gallery, in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center LaFortune Studio, 110 E. Second St., features 500 pieces of art by the same number of local students in grades K-12.
The Center Gallery, added in 2008, features artwork by clients of The Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges in the lobby of the YMCA, 418 S. Main St.
The Green Gallery, which was added last year, will display an exhibit called PaperView, which features work made from recycled, reused and repurposed paper in the lobby of the Park Centre Building, 525 S. Main St.
New this year, Mayfest partnered with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's local chapter for artBIKE, an installation of colorful, uniquely designed bicycles created by local artists to bring awareness to the progressive and incurable disease. ArtBIKE will be located in the Tulsa PAC's gallery, which is underneath the Chapman Music Hall's left-hand staircase.
Open to outsiders
Though the majority of the artists displaying work at both festivals hail from Tulsa and the immediate surrounding area, that 400 out-of-towners apply to be a part of an arts festival in this city says something about the quality of life and culture here, Pingry said.
"Last year was a really rainy, bad year," Pingry said. "Typically during rainy years, artists don't make much money. But one jewelry artist said he'd had a great day. He said, 'Tulsans support original art, and the people who want to buy art come out no matter the weather.
"Tulsa is known for having people who love art and are wiling to spend money on original art," she said. "They value original art and they're willing to spend money on it. And it's good for Tulsa to bring in people from around the country because they have to stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants. They bring extra revenue into the city that wouldn't normally be here."
The Blue Dome Arts Festival is still the best option for local artists who didn't get into Mayfest or perhaps can't afford the booth fee, which is pricier than the one at Blue Dome, Goss said.
"Blue Dome is great for smaller vendors who do this more as a hobby than a career," she said.
In the last two years, Blue Dome Arts Festival has seen some upheaval in administration, with the committee who organized the festival, Local Art Matters, leaving the Blue Dome and starting a festival in the Brady Arts District last year.
Harrison explained that the committee, made up of eight or so local artists, felt like Sager was taking too much control of the festival, overriding the committee on decisions they thought should have been made as a group.
"The committee didn't want to be in an area where someone could say, 'It's not a committee; I'm in charge."
But according to Sager, he was -- and is -- in charge.
"I started (Blue Dome Arts Festival), and there were some people who had previously been at Blue Dome who decided to go start their own (festival)," he said. "An outfit called Local Art Matters had been part of the Blue Dome committee for couple of years only, and they decided they wanted to go do it differently."
It became a battle of wills, with Local Art Matters spinning off and creating a new festival in the Brady Arts District.
The committee, though, decided their decision was a bad one because it hurt and confused artists who'd been participating in the festival since the beginning.
Artists weren't sure where to go or which festival they were showing work in.
"Local Art Matters decided it was not good for the artists to have (another festival) on the same weekend," Harrison said. "So they're not doing it this year. Everyone will be at Blue Dome this year."
"Everyone" being the 200-plus artists and craft vendors.
The festival entertainment includes nearly 40 local performers, including live music, belly dance, clogging, pottery wheel demonstrations, a blacksmith with a live forge, and an art car display. The Art BoxCar Children's Parade will take place at 4pm on Saturday afternoon.
"We will also have some surprise solos from our local Tulsa Police Department officers and some scenes from the upcoming play As You Like It, directed by Jenny Guy of the Shakedown In T-Town Shakespeare Festival," Goss said.
Sager said the idea to invite local police officers to participate in the festival by way of surprise performances at its two stages came during Officer Jennifer Mansell's recent funeral.
"One of the officers who did downtown for years stepped up ... and knocked them dead with a fabulous song," he said. "And it was so heart-wrenching, I just realized once again that the people who protect us have unique contributions as humans far beyond their positions as police officers. It's so important to acknowledge everyone for who they are and not just what they do."
Blue Dome's festival hours are Friday, May 20 from 11am-9pm; Saturday, May 21 from 11am-9pm; and Sunday, May 22 from 11am-5pm. Mayfest is open from morning to midnight, and gallery hours, which vary, are available at tulsamayfest.org.
The two festivals go a long way to both highlight the plethora of art and culture in the area and to show how receptive its residents are to it.
"We're happy to have been a catalyst for other art events in downtown like the Blue Dome District and this year's Deco District Chalk Art Festival," Pingry said. "Wouldn't it be great if all of downtown was filled with art the entire month of May?"
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