OKC's long-awaited First Americans Museum opening soon, with support from NEA grant
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
OKC's long-awaited First Americans Museum to open in fall with support from National Endowment for the Arts
When the long-awaited First Americans Museum opens in fall, it will be with two inaugural exhibitions and support of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Arts.
"It's a really fantastic feeling. We've had an all-Native curatorial team. And the amount of care and thoughtfulness and respect that has gone into curating the exhibitions is just fantastic," said Ginny Underwood, the museum's marketing and communications manager. "(Senior Curator) heather ahtone and her team have just done a wonderful job, and being able to share the objects from a Native perspective is pretty unique."
The long-gestating Oklahoma City museum, which is set to celebrate its grand opening Sept. 18, is one of four state institutions to receive grants as part of the National Endowment for the Arts' first round of funding for its 2021 fiscal year. Totaling $115,000, the grants will support projects that will serve Oklahomans across the state.
“While continuing to confront the challenges of the pandemic, these four organizations and hundreds of others like them throughout the state continue to plan their programs, with their focus firmly set on serving Oklahomans," said Oklahoma Arts Council Executive Director Amber Sharples in an email. "The success of these organizations in pursuing and being awarded National Endowment for the Arts funding during this trying time reflects the resilience of Oklahomans who endeavor in the arts. There is still much to overcome for our sector in the months ahead, but this investment provides encouragement.”
Venerable arts institute
Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations and develop their creative capacities.
The four Oklahoma projects are among 1,073 across the country totaling nearly $25 million that were selected during this first round of fiscal year 2021 in the Grants for Arts Projects category.
“The creativity and resilience of artists and arts organizations across the country have inspired Americans during this challenging year,” said Arts Endowment Acting Chairman Ann Eilers in a statement. “These projects represent the vitality and perseverance of arts organizations small and large to overcome significant challenges, transform to new ways of engagement, and forge new relationships that benefit the diverse populations in neighborhoods and cities throughout the United States.”
The Oklahoma Arts Institute is receiving a $10,000 grant to sustain its 45th annual Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain, set for July 10-25.
The summer institute is an intensive, nationally recognized two-week residential school that offers state high school students the chance to study with renowned professional artists in numerous disciplines, from acting and creative writing to orchestra and visual arts. Student auditions are underway, and the institute is accepting applications through mid-March.
“The OSAI audition process is entirely online this year—just one of many adaptions we have had to make because of COVID-19,” said Oklahoma Arts Institute President and CEO Julie Cohen in an email. “We’re always grateful to have the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, but especially now, as we’re working harder than ever to ensure that, despite the ongoing pandemic, our state’s young artists can still access an unparalleled arts education like the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute.”
Tulsa Race Massacre centennial
Two Tulsa-based organizations - Chamber Music Tulsa and the Philbrook Museum of Art - are receiving NEA grants to fund projects marking the upcoming centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of white residents attacked, set aflame and ultimately devastated the Greenwood District, which was at that time one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States, earning it the name "Black Wall Street." The mob killed an estimated 100 to 300 Black residents and left an about 10,000 homeless while destroying the hundreds of Black-owned businesses and homes in Greenwood.
The deadly tragedy was covered up for decades and omitted from history books even in Oklahoma, but several documentaries, books and other artistic efforts are marking the 100th anniversary.
“This is Chamber Music Tulsa’s first NEA grant, and we are honored to be one of only four arts organizations in Oklahoma to receive funding in this round. Our planning began more than two years ago to participate in the Race Massacre Centennial commemoration. We made a commitment to building equity in our field by commissioning new works from Black composers," said Chamber Music Tulsa Executive Director Bruce Sorrell in a statement.
The $35,000 NEA grant supports performances and activities related to three Chamber Music Tulsa commissions. Tulsa native Barron Ryan has composed a piano trio titled “My Soul is Full of Troubles," while Corey Dundee is composing a new string quartet that will be premiered by the Verona Quartet next season on Chamber Music Tulsa’s concert series.
And social justice artist and composer Anthony R. Green is composing a string quartet that will be filmed by the Thalea String Quartet as part of Any Given Child Tulsa in April and May. All 3,000-plus fourth-graders in Tulsa Public Schools will have access to the presentation.
After receiving a 2020 NEA grant to support the landmark exhibit “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists," considered the first major thematic show exploring the artistic achievements of Native women, Tulsa's Philbrook is garnering this year a $30,000 NEA grant for its upcoming exhibit "From the Limitations of Now," opening March 12.
With a title taken from a quote by OKC native and trailblazing African American author Ralph Ellison - “We are able to free ourselves from the limitations of today" - the exhibit will reflect on the ways art and literature allow people to examine America’s past and picture its future.
"From the Limitations of Now" will span multiple galleries and feature an array of work - including tapestries, beadwork, photographs, songs, paintings and videos - that will reflect on the violence of American history, the power of ancestors who worked to forge a more just world and visions of our country's future.
“As we observe the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, we must confront the many issues with race that remain," said Philbrook President and CEO Scott Stulen. "As a museum, it is our role to speak to the relevant issues in our community, have difficult conversations, examine our shared history and find ways to build a better future. From the Limitations of Now is one part of an ongoing effort, not tied to a single occasion or a moment in time, but a commitment to change throughout the organization, from the gallery walls to the boardroom.”
Long-awaited OKC landmark
Conceived in the 1990s as the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, the $175 million, 175,000-square-foot First Americans Museum is designed to Smithsonian Institution standards and is prominently situated southeast of the I-35/I-40 interchange near downtown OKC.
The museum, which had its ground blessing ceremony in 2005, originated as a project of the State of Oklahoma and is now being completed through a partnership between the State of Oklahoma and The City of Oklahoma City, with help of a Chickasaw Nation subsidiary, the American Indian Cultural Center Foundation and numerous donors.
"It's been a labor of love for sure. It has been a journey and with major ups and downs. But we've turned the corner; we can see the finish line now. So, that's really exciting," said Underwood, who is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.
"Every step of the way, we see successes in the small things like getting the stone laid in the front entrance or the carpet down in the interior. It's these baby steps along the way, and we're finally getting to take occupancy of the building (this month). It's just going to be surreal."
The museum will open with two inaugural exhibitions. The larger, "OKLA HOMMA," will focus on the collective history of the 39 tribal nations now headquartered in Oklahoma. Only a few of those tribes were original inhabitants; most were removed from their ancestral homelands to what is now the state. The name of the state and the title of the exhibition come from two Choctaw words, "Okla" and "Homma," which means “red people."
The mezzanine exhibition, "WINIKO: Life of an Object," will include about 140 objects on long-term loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Many of the objects were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from tribes in Oklahoma.
"They're coming back to Oklahoma for the first time, and they're being connected to the tribal people that they came from," Underwood said. "The Smithsonian had a certain level of information about the objects, but we've helped to research and connect the objects with the tribal people where they came from. So, we're able to give them the accurate names, for example, for what the tribe used to call them. It's just a great connection, and those objects are finally coming home. It's a real celebration on many levels."
The First Americans Museum's $40,000 NEA grant will support the publication of catalogs for both inaugural exhibits, enhancing the museum's efforts to allow Natives to tell the story of their own artworks, artifacts and history.
"Funding has always been an issue on the project at different points, so getting this grant really does help us to be able to produce the quality of a book to match the quality of the exhibitions," Underwood said. "We want to share that unique perspective, and we want to do it in a very professional way and the best possible way that we can."
The museum will boast a full-service restaurant, theater, a museum store featuring unique, authentic handmade items by premier First American artists and, eventually, a family discovery center.
"We have a countdown clock in our Welcome Center. So talk about getting real," Underwood said. "We're working diligently, we're gonna have a fantastic two-day experience at the grand opening, and we're hoping that we will be in a better place in regards to COVID. ... It's going to be THE place to see in Oklahoma City for some time."
Features Writer Brandy "BAM" McDonnell covers Oklahoma's arts, entertainment and cultural sectors for The Oklahoman and Oklahoman.com. Reach her at email@example.com, www.facebook.com/brandybammcdonnell and twitter.com/BAMOK. Please support work by her and her colleagues by subscribing at oklahoman.com/subscribe.