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Oklahoma Cultural Organizations Engage With Public During COVID-19 Pandemic

Visitors at the exhibition Renegades: Bruce Goff and the American School of Architecture at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art view the "Bruce Goff" panel of the exhibition in January.
Rene Peralta
Visitors at the exhibition Renegades: Bruce Goff and the American School of Architecture at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art view the "Bruce Goff" panel of the exhibition in January.

Attending a concert, looking at a museum exhibit or taking an art class are activities you typically want to get off your couch to do. 

But not during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Cultural organizations in the state are now offering those experiences online to Oklahoman’s stuck at home. 


This includes Renegades, a joint exhibition between the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and OU’s Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture. The exhibition explores the American School which refers to the school of design and practice that was developed by architects Bruce Goff and Herb Greene as well as others at OU in the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

When the exhibition closed a month early in March due to COVID-19, Angela Person, director of research initiatives and strategic planning at OU’s college of architecture, said her team began exploring different options to make it available online


What ensued was a process that Person said took between 60 to 80 hours to complete. Her team used a 3D camera to scan the objects and exhibition spaces then photographed each of the over 150 pieces included in the exhibition.


“Now you can take a virtual reality tour of the exhibition on any web browser,” Person said. “You can move through the space, and it feels like you're visiting the museum in person. And if you want to take a closer look at something, all you do is click it and you can view it up close.”


Other cultural organizations in Norman and Oklahoma City such as Sam Noble Museum and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art have also engaged with the public during the pandemic by offering activities, educational videos and movie nights.


Artists from Factory Obscura, an art collective which creates immersive installations that are on display at its “Mix-Tape” building in Oklahoma City, went as far as to transform their homes into performance spaces. The colective has hosted live-streams on their social media accounts every Friday and Saturday during the pandemic that include musical performances, painting demonstrations and dance lessons. Viewers are encouraged to leave virtual tips through mobile payment apps. 


Tammy Greenman, director of strategic creativity at Factory Obscura, said the live-streams have been a way for artists to stay connected after the collective had to temporarily close its building in mid-March. 


“It's been wonderful and so fun to see people in their own environment,” Greenman said. “I find them quite fascinating and I actually quite like it more almost than a regular performance because there's something raw and natural about it.” 


Greenman said Factory Obscura had 16 people on salary before the pandemic and were in the process of hiring two more people, but the collective has now had to temporarily furlough most of its staff. 


Other cultural organizations in the state are experiencing similar difficulties. Executive Director of Oklahoma Humanities Caroline Lowery said that many are already underfunded and survive on a month-to-month basis, relying on gift shop sales and funding events which are now indefinitely cancelled due to COVID-19. 


She said the pandemic has impacted cultural organizations of all sizes, including those in rural areas that often have one part-time employee and cultural organizations that have to spend thousands of dollars each month to maintain facilities. 


“The facilities have to be maintained in a specific way because of the collections that they care for,” Lowery said. “So things like air conditioning and humidity control. You can't just shut down the buildings. Your collections are required to be maintained.”


She added that some cultural organizations in the state reported laying off 80 percent of their staff due to COVID-19, and some executive directors are essentially volunteering to do a full-time job. 


In response to the struggles cultural organizations in the state are facing, Oklahoma Humanities and the Oklahoma Arts Council announced the groups would invest more than $800,000 collectively through grants to preserve jobs and stabilize organizations in the nonprofit arts, humanities and cultural sectors in the state. The funding was provided to the two organizations as state partners of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for Humanities and is being made available through the CARES ACT which was included in the $2.2 trillion relief package passed by the federal government in March. 


Oklahoma Humanities was given about $481,000 to award to cultural organizations across the state through their CARES Act-related grants called HOPE Grants. When the applications first opened, Lowery said the response was overwhelming. 


“We received requests for over $700,000 in the first 48 hours that the applications were open,” Lowery said. 


Norman Cultural Connection, which aims to enhance awareness and understanding of cultural diversity, was one the 35 organizations that received an Oklahoma Humanities HOPE Grant which ranged from $3,500 to $25,000. Marial Martyn, executive director of Norman Cultural Connection, said that general operating support grants like these are rare in the philanthropic community since grants typically fund specific programs. 


“As a nonprofit organization, we're dependent upon donations that we typically receive from our participants that come to events and programs,” Martyn said. “And since most of those have been suspended, it's impacting that support, and the HOPE Grant is filling that gap.”


Amber Sharples, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council, said the organization will be awarding a little over $400,000 in grant funds across all artistic disciplines starting in early May. Sharples says the way cultural organizations have been able to help people have a voice and connect to the arts during the pandemic shows the innovation and creativity of the cultural sector.


“I think if we didn't understand and appreciate the power of the arts to connect us and create a sense of community - this pandemic - if there is a silver lining, one of those things could be that we come to a true awareness of how much the arts really do nourish our souls, impact our sense of connection, and really keep us healthy in this space.”

Katelyn discovered her love for radio as a student employee at KGOU, graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and then working as a reporter and producer in 2021-22. Katelyn has completed internships at SiriusXM in New York City and at local news organizations such as The Journal Record and The Poteau Daily News. Katelyn served as president of the OU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2017 to 2020. She grew up in Midland, Texas.
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