Interviews, photos and video: Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center opens new downtown OKC home this week
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Wednesday's The Oklahoman. To see a gallery of even more photos, click here.
Dawning of a new day: Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center opens long-awaited new home
Just north of historic Automobile Alley, a new landmark gleams just over the horizon.
"At sunrise, it is pink and purple," said Lori Brooks, director of communications for Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center. "We've been looking at the renderings for so long, so to see it really reflect the sun in the way that we've been saying it would has just been incredible."
After 12 years of planning and two years of construction, Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center is finally unveiling its new home to the public this week with a series of grand opening events.
Already gaining national interest for its distinctive design by Oklahoma City's Rand Elliott Architects as well as for the acclaimed artists whose works are featured in the grand opening exhibit, Oklahoma Contemporary's new home is being viewed as an immediate upgrade - and not just for the nonprofit arts organization.
"I think Contemporary immediately takes its place as one of OKC’s leading institutions. I don’t think projects with this sophistication would have been possible two decades ago. This is another testament to our maturation as a city," said OKC Mayor David Holt. “These things don’t happen magically. We all owe Chris Keesee and the Kirkpatrick philanthropic entities a debt of gratitude for leading the charge.”
Established in 1989 at the OKC Fairgrounds as City Arts Center by Keesee and Kirkpatrick Foundation Director Marilyn Myers, Oklahoma Contemporary's new $30 million home is situated on a 4.6-acre campus dominated by its shiny new 54,000-square-foot main facility. Elliott dubbed the building's concept "Folding Light," devising a unique aluminum skin in which pieces are folded to capture the light and react to the sun.
"We think the building is inspirational, so not just the work that happens inside of it, but also the structure itself is a work of art," said Oklahoma Contemporary Artistic Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis.
"We've worked so hard to get this building open, but we haven't been interacting with the public like we used to. So, we're all missing that experience of sharing the work. So, we're really excited to be able to open our doors after 12 years of planning."
The four-story building includes two spacious art galleries, a Creative Lounge with 500 books and a neon-trimmed, Italian-designed mirror for selfies, three flexible art studios, a digital media lab, a dance studio with a sprung maple floor, a dynamic performance space with an Elliott-designed LED "chandelier," an early childhood room designed especially for toddlers and a teen studio devised just for the high-school set.
Cafe Contemporary will feature coffees, cocktails and contemporary comfort food from Empire Slice House chef Avery Cannon, while the retail space will showcase products from Oklahoma artists and businesses.
Although most visitors won't see them, the main building also includes a massive art elevator and loading dock that directly affect the caliber of exhibits the center can host.
"A lot of the infrastructure that we have - our heating and cooling, our climate control, humidity control - it allows us to create the conditions that will make us good stewards of art objects. So, it allows us to loan from major institutions that we previously would not be able to do because our facilities just weren't up to par," Davis said.
"The fairgrounds, we loved them, they were good to us, but now we get to control our operations in a way that's a little more conducive to an art center."
The center's new downtown campus also includes a three-block arts park and a 100-year-old, 10,000-square-foot former warehouse that has been fully remodeled into Oklahoma Contemporary's Studio School, with multiple studios for ceramics, fiber art, sculpture and other classes, camps and workshops. School will be in session March 30 as the multidisciplinary arts organization begins 50 different classes, from weaving and soundpainting to DJ school and digital media.
"That compares to 12 classes at the fairgrounds, (so that's) one example of the dramatic expansion of the programs that these facilities allow," said Executive Director Eddie Walker. "We're going to have two years of exploration as we figure out what can be done in these spaces. ... There's a spot on our website where you can go and submit a proposal for a class - and we evaluate them all."
Initially slated to open last autumn, construction on Oklahoma Contemporary's new home was delayed due to record rainfall in 2019. But Davis said in retrospect the timing seems perfect.
"It would have been a very different experience had we opened this building four years ago, eight years ago. The city's changed so much I think it's finally ready for what we've been planning. Probably, we're just ahead of where we should be, which is good," he said. "With all the great cultural flourishing that we've been experiencing with culinary arts, with 21C (Museum Hotel) opening, with Factory Obscura coming online, there's a lot of exciting work happening."
Last year, the opening reception for the last exhibit in Oklahoma Contemporary's fairgrounds home, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s "Oklahoma Is Black," drew more than 500 people, setting a record for the nonprofit arts organization. Davis said 1,000 people are expected to attend Thursday night's Opening Celebration, a ticketed fundraiser.
The new arts center will officially open to the public with a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. Friday. Oklahoma Contemporary be open until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and the Oklahoma City Streetcar, which has a stop at the center, will run for free all weekend.
Big crowds are anticipated for opening weekend and beyond; Davis said the center is expected to draw more than 100,000 people a year.
Admission to the center will still be free.
"There's tons of education and public programming space - we're going to activate it. ... We've got public programs happening every single week on Thursday night. Once a month, we have Second Saturday (activities); on Fridays we've got Zero2Four Art Lab for kids who are under 4 and their caregivers. Camps are about to crank up in (May). We've got two major exhibitions on two floors; we've got installations happening in Campbell Art Park," he said.
"We're responding to demand. This is not something that we decided would be a good idea. All of the things that we're doing are rooted in research about where the city is going and what our residents are looking for."
The ribbon cutting and public grand opening will be 10 a.m. Friday for the new Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, 11 NW 11. The art center will have extended hours 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free, and the OKC Streetcar, which has a stop at the center, will be running for free Friday-Sunday. For more information, go to oklahomacontemporary.org.
FOR MORE COVERAGE
Look for additional coverage about Oklahoma Contemporary's grand opening in the Thursday, Friday and Sunday Life sections of The Oklahoman.