New arts campus for Oklahoma Contemporary on its way

Christian Keesee <em>center</em> move ground signifying the organization’s new arts campus on Sept. 28. (Garett Fisbeck)

Christian Keesee center move ground signifying the organization’s new arts campus on Sept. 28. (Garett Fisbeck)

As a volunteer for Oklahoma Contemporary, 17-year-old Brianna Lodge encourages local children to dive into their imaginations by creating art.

The young artist doesn’t instruct when working with youth through the nonprofit’s arts camps and outreach events. Lodge makes frequent trips to the craft closet for supplies. She is known to carry vibrantly colored pipe cleaners in her pockets and is ready at a moment’s notice to pass them along to young artists. Her joy is watching the youngsters imagine, express and create. Nearly a decade ago, she was in their shoes, first learning how to express herself through art.

When Lodge volunteered at the most recent Oklahoma Contemporary Make + Take event, she was more than prepared to answer parents’ questions about the organization, a nonprofit encouraging artistic expression in all forms through education and exhibitions.

First, Lodge told parents about its summer camps. Then, she began to reflect on her experience, not mentioning the skills she secured as an artist but the confidence she developed. As Lodge described her first experience with Oklahoma Contemporary, she characterized herself as a shy and quiet student, too timid to ask her instructor for a pencil.

“It does help a kid come out of their shell,” Lodge told Oklahoma Gazette. “If it hadn’t been for Oklahoma Contemporary, I would still be so shy.”

Lodge credits Oklahoma Contemporary for boosting her confidence to apply to Harding Fine Arts Academy, a prestigious charter school centered on the arts, and a photography camp at the University of Central Oklahoma. She was accepted into both. Now, the junior high school student is considering an art minor in college. At times, she has thought about a career as an art instructor for Oklahoma Contemporary or another similar arts organization.

Future plans

Over it’s 27-year history, Oklahoma Contemporary has influenced thousands of young artists, inspired novice to advanced artists, connected professional artists to the community and offered locals the chance to experience art of the highest caliber through free exhibitions.

Oklahoma Contemporary began as City Arts Center, an organization founded by Christian Keesee and the late Marilyn Myers in State Fair Park. From the beginning, leaders made it their mission to create accessible arts programs. The guiding principal pushed the organization to never charge admission for an exhibition and constantly develop outreach programs to underserved communities.

The board’s commitment hasn’t wavered. In fact, the mission served as the motivation toward developing a plan to expand the nonprofit’s reach. About eight years ago, early in the planning, board members and leaders discussed a new location for constructing a world-class arts campus to better serve Oklahoma City and the state.

A year ago, leaders revealed plans to move from the fairgrounds to an area just north of Automobile Alley near downtown Oklahoma City. Leaders touted the new location for its ability to put Oklahoma Contemporary in a spot more accessible to the public. Additionally, with the 4.6 acres, renovations to an existing building and plans to build, leaders envisioned an arts campus offering many of the center’s well-known programs and events, but on a grander and greater scale. For instance, with outdoor space and a design fabrication lab, patrons would find new options for creating, expressing and enjoying art.

In late September, a large crowd gathered at NW 11th Street and Broadway Avenue to see Keesee and fellow Oklahoma Contemporary leaders move a step closer toward the future of the organization as ground was broken for the new arts campus.

“A new more accessible center for art is very much needed now,” said Keesee, board president. “Today, a third of Americans are engaged in arts institutions or performances. Public funding for culture has decreased dramatically. Nationwide, we are experiencing an arts education crisis. Despite its proven advantages in critical thinking and creativity, art has been eliminated in too many classrooms. Nearly half of the public schools in Oklahoma City do not have an art teacher. Exposure to the arts is something that no one should be deprived.”

Through a capital campaign, leaders have raised $15.5 million toward the $26 million project. The campus will be home to a 50,000-square-foot, four-story building called Folding Light, which will feature eight classrooms, gallery space, theater space and a dance studio. Plans also call for renovation of a 10,000-square foot building and creation of an arts park with space for outdoor exhibitions, educational programs and public performances. The arts campus will accommodate camps, classes, workshops, lectures, school field trips, exhibits, performances and more.

When Oklahoma Contemporary completes its arts campus in late 2018, it will amplify the arts to an already vibrant and diverse area of the city. Nestled north of Automobile Alley and to the east of Midtown, the area is home to a variety of retail shops and local eateries as well as places of work, worship and living. It’s an area known to attract people, including visitors.

“It helps complete the cultural landscape for Oklahoma City,” said Donna Rinehart-Keever, Oklahoma Contemporary’s executive director. “It is a strong, vibrant destination point for Oklahoma City.”

Big impact

Oklahoma Contemporary leaders’ vision is already becoming a reality. Make + Take, one of the organization’s popular outreach events for families, has utilized the new arts campus. Under tents, staff set up tables and chairs and prepare art supplies. They don’t wait long before families begin showing up in droves. The free weekend event offers children a variety of different art pieces to craft and create that match Oklahoma Contemporary’s most recent exhibit, enticing parents to want to check out the art.

Anywhere from 60 to 100 people will participate in Make + Take at the fairgrounds location. When Oklahoma Contemporary moves the event to NW 11th Street and Broadway Avenue, upward of 350 people visit the event.

“You have to be wanting to come here to find us,” Rinehart-Keever said when comparing the two locations. “There, we have more visibility. It’s location, location, location.”

Lodge can attest to the new location pulling people in. People passing by asked the volunteer about the gathering, if their children could participate and what Oklahoma Contemporary was. Lodge’s answer is simple: It’s a place to discover confidence, meet new friends and create art.

Keesee’s reply isn’t mush different. Oklahoma Contemporary inspires audiences to dream big. To celebrate the organization’s ability to inspire dreamers, Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City, a large-scale steel and acrylic installation, will continue to grace Oklahoma Contemporary’s future campus through Oct. 30.

To Keesee, it’s a signal of what’s to come: “It’s big. It’s visionary and it’s fun.”

 

Print headline: Shared art, A founding mission pushes Oklahoma Contemporary to new heights with plans to build a new arts campus in Automobile Alley.

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