Lots of major cities around the world have produced biennial art shows for decades. Now thanks to our own Living Arts of Tulsa, we can add ourselves to that list.
We used to have an annual show, back in the 20th century, at the Philbrook. But a juror for a mid-70s edition of the show hurt a lot of feelings, and that was pretty much that.
"They put out the call for entries, and they hired a juror who was very, very, very selective," said Living Arts director Steve Liggett. "And his interest was really to make it the best damn show the Philbrook had ever seen."
Good intentions, and all, but said juror ended up choosing for the show a paltry 35 pieces of art. And that's not a lot.
"So 35 pieces would be the size of a small room," Liggett said. "They had it, in fact, in one of the little rooms at the Philbrook instead of the bigger rooms it usually was in. Artists got really mad. They cancelled their checks, they boycotted the Philbrook, they got really up in arms, and it was a sad thing. They cancelled the show and never had another one again."
But Liggett is bringing it back, at least in some form.
"Two years ago, Melanie Fry came to me with an idea for a show," he recalled. "She said, 'You know, I want to have this women's show.'"
After talking with Fry for a bit, the idea evolved to include artists of both sexes and became a bigger show than what Fry had originally conceived.
"She curated that show the first year, and it was a huge success," Liggett said. "It was an amazing amount of people who came out of the woodwork for this show. After that was over, we got together, and Living Arts basically said, 'We've got something here.' I said, 'Let's do it every other year. I think it will have more of an edge that way.'"
And so what is now known as the Oh! Tulsa Biennial was born.
But why a biennial? Why not every year? Or every decade?
"If you have it every year, for one thing, I'd say 95 percent of all the art community here in town doesn't work full time as artists," Liggett said. "They have jobs in teaching, they have other jobs that they make money at so that they can make their work."
But there are less pragmatic reasons, as well.
MICHAEL DAVIS, OH! TULSA
Courtesy Living Arts
"By two years rather than one year, they've got a new area of their life that they're fascinated with," he said. Also, it's a bit easier to see a general picture of the changes in a city's history by looking at it every two years rather than annually.
"We think it will make a fresher show if we have it every two years," Liggett said. "But it's also frequent enough that you can see the progression of a person's work, which is fascinating to some people."
Quickly securing the services of Ann Weisman, a former Tulsa who is now the deputy director of the New Mexico Arts Council, Liggett and Living Arts set about creating the show.
"We decided to have it juried by an objective, outside source -- somebody who wouldn't say, 'Well this is a friend of mine,' or 'This is my neighbor.' That kind of thing happens," Liggett said. "And somebody who's really open-minded so we don't end up with just one kind of work and somebody who's going to have a little bit of knowledge about some of the puns and inside images and jokes that this kind of show might have."
What Weisman has chosen has ended up being a collection of more than 160 pieces of art--everything from representational works to installation pieces to landscape and still-lifes and beyond, and Liggett is visibly excited about the show and its prospects.
"This is the start of something that will have history," he said. "This is the first real Tulsa biennial. This is all media, and we'll see where it goes from here."
The qualifications for the works submitted did not make up a long list: artists had to be from Tulsa or currently living here, and the art had to have something to do with our bustling little berg. And Liggett is happy with what has made it through the selection process and into the show.
"We decided we're going to be selective, but we also wanted it to be a large show so people can get an idea of what art looks like in Tulsa in abroad, general sense," he said.
"We have a lot of really great people in this show," Liggett continued. "People are going to see people they know, people they don't know, images that are funny, images that are critical."
And there will be some surprises, too. In fact, UTW's own Ray Pearcey has two pieces in the show. Who knew he did anything other than write really well? It would seem that Pearcey is one of those annoying people who turns out to be amazing at pretty much anything he tries his hand at.
As it stands, the show is large and will fill Living Arts. That's great and all, but any expansion involved in, say, the 2016 edition of the Oh! Tulsa Biennial will require some thought.
"This will take up all of the gallery," Liggett said. "Biennials in other cities grow. We'll see what happens. I'm really hoping this will become a point in time where people will aspire to have their best work in it.
The show opens this weekend as a part of the Brady Arts District's First Friday Art Crawl and will run through Aug 23. The opening night reception will run from 6-9pm, and Liggett said many of the artists will be on hand.
Once the show is up and running, it will be available to the public during Living Arts' gallery hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays from 1-5pm and 1-9pm on Thursdays.
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