Arts and Culture in Oklahoma
Only California has a higher number of Native American tribes than Oklahoma, the state whose name comes from the Choctaw word for "red person." This legacy infuses the Sooner State with tribal traditions and culture. Early settlements and monuments count among Oklahoma’s most-visited attractions. Some of the contemporary Native American populations continue to create and demonstrate the handicrafts and folk practices of their ancestors. Today, over 65 tribes and 250,000 people count themselves among Oklahoma’s Native American population.
The sheer size of Oklahoma City (population 551,000) and Tulsa (386,000) generates a significant amount of cultural activity in Oklahoma. However, many smaller cities and towns also have active cultural calendars, including community theaters, concerts in Grand Old Opry-style houses, bluegrass festivals, and art gallery shows.
The Oklahoma City Philharmonic, under the direction of Joel Levine, began performing in 1924. The ensemble has three series from September through May: classical, pops, and discovery, all presented in downtown’s ornate Civic Center Music Hall.
Tim McFadden, executive musician for the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, attributes the ensemble with forming the "keystone of the arts in Tulsa." In addition to performing classical concerts fall through spring, the orchestra accompanies the Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Opera, Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, andLight Opera Oklahoma.
Bartlesville hosts the annual OK Mozart Festival. Nine days of concerts showcase classical music as well as genres such as Celtic music, jazz, bluegrass, swing, and pop. Guest artists and conductors from around the world join with regional musicians for performances.
Formed in 1948 to present operettas, Tulsa Opera is Oklahoma’s sole professional opera company. The company performs three full productions from a classical repertoire every year at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. Opera News magazine named the ensemble one of the country’s top favorite regional opera companies.
The Oklahoma City Ballet centers its season around its annual Nutcracker performance, but has expanded its repertoire to stage full-length classical ballets, modern masterpieces, and cutting-edge world premieres.
An international company of 30 dancers composes the Tulsa Ballet troupe. Marcello Angelini directs the artists in classic and modern concerts staged at Tulsa’s Performing Arts Center and Oklahoma City’s Rose State Performing Arts Center.
Local history, Native American heritage, and regional artists compose the heart of Oklahoma’s museum collections, while some of the larger institutions also present work from around the world.
Oklahoma City has several notable museums, and a few standouts. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, once known as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, showcases contemporary Western art as well as masterworks by Frederic Remington and Albert Bierstadt. Within the museum complex is James Earle Fraser’s famous 18-foot sculpture, The End of the Trail, a 14,000-square-foot replica of a historic Western town, as well as the American Cowboy Gallery, American Rodeo Gallery, and Western Performers Gallery.
The star attraction of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art is a 55-foot high glass tower designed by contemporary glass artist Dale Chihuly (b. 1941). In addition to significant holdings of Chihuly glass works, the museum contains European and American art.
More off the beaten track, Oklahoma City’s Melton Art Reference Library and Museum displays the work of European and American artists such as Eugène Boudin (1824–1898), Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874–1939), George Inness (1825–1894), Jean Dufy (1888–1964), and others. An Oklahoma art collection, extensive reference library, and more than 30,000 art reproductions round out the institution’s holdings.
The highlight of Tulsa’s stellar group of fine arts institutions is the Philbrook Museum of Art. Inside an Italianate style villa, surrounded by formal gardens, the museum has a range of art from the region, the nation, and beyond. Highlights include strong holdings in Baroque and Renaissance art, the Adkins Collection of Native American painting and pottery, and outdoor sculpture.
Tulsa’s Richardson Asian Art Museum consists of one expansive area filled with glass cases of different types of exotic carved jade, cloisonné, sculpture, and artwork designed to inspire enlightenment, meditation, and tranquility.
At the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, the theme is depicting Jewish history, culture, and faith through art and artifacts. The Southwest region’s largest Judaica collection features Torah scrolls, menorahs, textiles, archaeological objects, and fine art.
In Tulsa, the Gilcrease Museum hosts temporary exhibits that complement a comprehensive permanent collection of art, manuscripts, documents, maps, and artifacts of the American West. The surrounding thematic gardens fill 23 acres.
The Norman branch of the University of Oklahoma holds the notable Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Hugh Newell Jacobsen designed the building, which contains works by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Pierre Renoir (1841–1919), Claude Monet (1840-1926), and other Impressionist and modern masters from Europe and the United States.
Muskogee’s Ataloa Lodge Museum has 20,000 pieces of traditional and contemporary work by Native Americans, most notably a significant collection of Kachina dolls.
The Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art in Shawnee is one of Oklahoma’s oldest museums. Over 6,000 objects chronicle ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek cultures. Additional art represents Renaissance through 20th-century artists, and artifacts illuminate Native American, African, Eastern, and Oceanic traditions.
The highlight of Carnegie’s Kiowa Tribal Museum is ten murals painted by Kiowa artists, illuminating their cultural heritage from prehistory to the present day. The museum showcases native crafts such as beading, broaches, and a large Sundance Teepee.
Ancient and modern civilizations of the Americas are the focus at Idabel’s Museum of the Red River. Displays juxtapose ethnographic art from the Americas with pieces from Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. In addition, the museum showcases regional archaeological finds, Plains Indian textiles, Southwestern Pueblo pottery, and pre-Columbian objects.
With a Broadway musical named after it, Oklahoma boasts deep ties with music and musicians. Its five official state songs include the title song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as well as Bob Wills’ Faded Love, Martha Kemm Barrett’s Oklahoma, My Native Land, The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize?, and Oklahoma Hills by Woody and Jack Guthrie. American Indian music informs traditional and folk sounds, while the most prevalent contemporary musical form in the state is country music. Among the names on the lengthy roster of Oklahoma’s country and western superstars areReba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, Vince Gill, and Carrie Underwood.
Folk musician and singer Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) made musical history with tunes such as This Land is Your Land and Deportee. He described his home town of Okemah as "one of the singiest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns..." Okemah returns the adulation, hosting the Woody Guthrie Folk Festivalwith concerts and performances throughout the city.
Outside the country arena, alternative psychedelic rockers The Flaming Lips have earned notoriety for bizarre titles, spacey music, and performance art-style live shows featuring puppets, film, confetti, and a plastic bubble that encases singer Wayne Coyne and transports him around the audience.
Oklahoma City celebrates native son Charlie Christian (1916–1942), a pioneer of jazz guitar, at the annual Charlie Christian International Music Festival.
Pop artist Roger Miller (1936-1992), famous for novelty hits such as Do-Wacka-Do, Disco Man, Engine Engine No. 9, My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died, Wanda Iguana, and King of the Road gets his due at the Roger Miller Museum, located on Route 66 in the town of Erick. A 1929 brick building houses handwritten song sheets, music, and memorabilia.
Celebrate old-time music at the American Banjo Museum, situated in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown Entertainment District. Instruments, music, and memorabilia chart the banjo’s evolution from a rustic folk creation to an opulent Jazz Age instrument. The museum also sponsors the annual Bricktown Banjo Bash.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
The star of Oklahoma City’s relatively small theater troupes is Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. USA Today named the professional theater group as one of the top ten places to see theater far off Broadway. The more modest Jewel Box Theatre produces community theater-in-the-round.
Offering an alternative to community theater productions, Tulsa’s American Theatre Company stages major classics and dramas, including contemporary off-Broadway hits. Theatre Tulsa, the country’s oldest community theater west of the Mississippi, presents established work at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
The small town of Enid is home to the Gaslight Theatre. Since 1966, the ensemble has presented farces, musicals, and classic dramas, as well as dinner theater and the summer festival Shakespeare in the Park.
Physically demanding traditional dances form the core of the Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival in Oklahoma City. The three-day dance-off brings together Jingle Dress, Fancy Shawl, Northern Fancy, and Southern Buckskin dancers, accompanied by singing, chanting, and music.
One of the most recent films featuring Oklahoma, The Killer Inside Me, premiered April 2010 at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. With a release date of June 2010, the drama is already stirring up controversy. Critics at the Sundance Film Festival commented that the movie, adapted from pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson’s novel, has gratuitous violence.
Among the other top movies filmed in Oklahoma are the gangster biopic Dillinger (1973), the Oscar-winning drama Rain Man (1988), the adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel The Outsiders(1983), the storm-chaser film Twister (1996), vampire thriller Near Dark (1987), romantic epic Far and Away (1992), Peter Jackson’s horror flick The Frighteners (1996), the supernatural inspirational picture Phenomenon (1996), and Cameron Crowe’s drama Elizabethtown (2005).
Oklahoma honors the legacy of early western movie star Tom Mix at Dewey’s Tom Mix Museum. Memorabilia and photographs showcase his life and career.
Other film notables who were born in or worked in Oklahoma include actor and director Ron Howard, martial arts film star Chuck Norris, television and movie actor James Garner, western star Gene Autry, Emmy and Golden Globe winner Alfre Woodard, and director Blake Edwards.
Historic movie sets, props, and film lore are the focus at Simpson’s Mercantile and Movie Studio in East Randolph. Two brothers own and operate the business, which also serves as headquarters for their movie company, Skeleton Creek Productions.
Of all the writers associated with Oklahoma, no other captures its pioneering spirit and folklore better than humorist Will Rogers (1879–1935). Two towns celebrate the man who once said, "A man that don’t love a horse, there is something the matter with him." In Oologah, the 400-acre Dog Iron Ranch holds Rogers’ boyhood home. Claremore’s Will Rogers Memorial Museum showcases western art, photography, and memorabilia related to the life and work of Rogers.
Another Oklahoma-born notable writer is Ralph Ellison (1913-1994), who penned the seminal work of African-American literature Invisible Man.
Other writers who were born in or worked in Oklahoma include poet Joy Harjo (b. 1951), who often writes on Native American themes; best-selling young adult novelist S.E. Hinton (b. 1948); and print and television journalist Bill Moyers (b. 1934).
One of the easiest ways to get an overview of Oklahoma’s artists past and present is to tour the Oklahoma State Capitol building’s Betty Price Gallery on the first floor. Highlights of the collection include more than 20 masterworks by artists who lived and/or worked in the state, including Ed Ruscha(b. 1937), Alexandra Alaupovic (b. 1921), Doel Reed (b. 1943), Nan Sheets (1885–1976), andWoody Crumbo (1912–1989). A portfolio of 165 etchings chronicles the artistic evolution of Oklahoma printmaker Maurice R. Bebb (1891-1986). Geometric abstractionist and Oklahoma native Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996) is represented as well.
Although not born or raised in Oklahoma, photographer Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) became intimately connected with the state. As part of the federal government’s Resettlement Administration of 1935–1936, Lange photographed poverty-stricken, homeless, unemployed Oklahoma natives who were migrating west during the Great Depression.
Constructed between 1914 and 1917, the Oklahoma State Capitol has an area of 400,000 square feet. Due to budget constraints, the building did not receive its dome until 2002. Enoch Kelly Haney(b. 1940) created a bronze statue of a Native American man that stands atop the dome.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial commemorates the tragic explosion of April 19, 1995. The memorial site consists of a museum, the Gates of Time sculpture, the Field of Empty Chairs installation, the Survivor Tree, and a reflecting pool.
Known as Oklahoma’s "Terra Cotta City," downtown Tulsa holds prime examples of Art Deco architecture. The area also features an arena, constructed in 2008 and designed by Cesar Pelli.
The Price Tower Arts Center, housed in a Bartlesville skyscraper and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, holds masterworks of art and design.
Ponca City’s "Palace on the Prairie" is the Marland Mansion, modeled after an Italian castle. This National Historic Landmark served as the home of oil tycoon E.W. Marland. The stately ballroom features a gold leaf-covered ceiling.
The Gardner Mansion and Museum in Broken Bow was the home of the Choctaw chief. The structure now holds Native American artifacts and a group of fossils. Nearby, a 2,000-year-old Cypress tree functioned as a landmark for Choctaw Indians walking on the Trail of Tears.
In Lindsay, the Murray-Lindsay Mansion and Pikes Peak School showcase the 1880 home and furniture of Frank Murray and his wife, Alzira McCaughey, from the Choctaw tribe. The 1908 schoolhouse stands across the road from the mansion.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
Oklahoma’s Native American heritage influences its handicraft and folk culture. Sacred traditions such as powwows and dances thrive today due to the people, organizations, and events that celebrate Native American life and history. At the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City, over 100 tribes from across the continent converge to showcase dance and music.
Many sites, museums, and heritage centers recognized Native American contributions. In Woodward, the Plains Indians and Pioneers Museum features Cheyenne and Arapaho handicrafts and artifacts. In Muskogee, the Five Civilized Tribes Museum preserves the traditions of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, Choctaw, and Muscogee (Creek) tribes with historic displays. Native American artists sell their crafts at the on-site Trading Post gift shop. Shawnee’s Citizen Potawatomi Museumexhibits works connecting historical indigenous Great Lakes cultures with their contemporary counterparts, emphasizing the Anishinabe Potawatomi traditions.
Agrarian and pioneer cultures also inspire Oklahoma’s handicraft traditions. Bartlesville’s Woolaroc Ranch, Museum, and Wildlife Preserve is a working ranch that also features a 52,000-square-foot (4,831-sq-m) museum space displaying American Southwest art and artifacts, as well as a large collection of Colt handguns. The Cherokee Strip Museum, in Alva, displays pioneer and Native American-themed artwork in 40 rooms. In the town of Freedom, the Freedom Museum features an extensive collection of barbed wire.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
The 1920s saw a burgeoning Native American Art Movement in Oklahoma. Under the tutelage of the first director of the Oklahoma University School of Art, the Kiowa Five American Indian Artistsdeveloped a representational style of narrative painting that depicted unique Kiowa Indian traditions as well as scenes from everyday life. Bright, flat color planes typify the work.
Many people attribute Muscogee (Creek), Wichita, and Pawnee Indian Acee Blue Eagle (1907-1959) with starting the Bacone art movement in the mid-1930s. This style of painting bridged Native American Flatstyle art, featuring pictorial work relevant to a specific tribe, and Modern painting reflecting diverse tribal traditions.
The legends and lore of Route 66 have left their mark on Oklahoma’s pop culture. In Elk City, the expansive Old Town Museum Complex holds the National Route 66 Museum. Murals, vintage vehicles, memorabilia, and a psychedelic-hued, black-lit 1960s Volkswagen Microbus celebrate the road where many people get their kicks.
-World Trade Press