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United artists

Arts Alliance Tulsa brings local organizations under one umbrella

Phil Lakin at the press conference announcing Arts Alliance Tulsa

Think the arts are just about entertainment? Arts Alliance Tulsa has some data that might make you think again. Its mission is to help all of us — locally, regionally, and nationally — think in a new way about the impact the arts have on every layer of our lives.

Launched earlier this year, AAT is part of a national network of United Arts Funds, the first such organization in Tulsa, whose purpose is to provide financial and marketing support for local arts institutions. It works like a United Way, consolidating fundraising and publicity efforts into one organization with a rich knowledge of the cultural landscape.

AAT recently announced 39 local non-profit arts organizations it will serve in its inaugural campaign season by, among other things, giving grants of up to 30 percent of a group’s budget, providing marketing support, and attracting national attention (including that of major funders for whom Tulsa isn’t really on the radar) to the Tulsa arts scene. The list ranges from small groups to huge institutions and encompasses performing arts, visual arts, and historic venues, all thoroughly vetted in an intensive application process.

According to AAT’s executive director Todd Cunningham, Tulsa’s arts organizations represent more than $40 million in annual budgets and serve more than 1 million people every year. 

“According to Americans for the Arts economic impact calculations, these numbers produce more than $62 million in revenue for the local economy, create more than 2000 jobs, and produce more than $6 million annually in state and local tax income [from ticket sales],” Cunningham says.

The arts in Tulsa have historically been funded mostly by individuals and foundations, often from the same sources again and again, but the corporate and workplace giving numbers max out at 5 percent. That, he says, is not sustainable.

“Tulsa has been so fortunate that our founders and community leaders and citizens have supported the arts for going on a century,” he continues. “But we have to try to find new sources of revenue. We need them desperately.”

According to Cunningham, when a city creates an arts fund such as AAT, “the division of revenue on just the corporate and workplace giving level jumps from 5 percent to about 50 percent.” But it’s not just the arts organizations that benefit. A 2003 study found that a community with a united arts fund has twice the revenue and net worth of one without.

Twice the revenue. That’s a potentially huge impact on the city as a whole, but also on member organizations. Theatre Pops director Meghan Hurley says she appreciates the accountability that AAT brings to the table. “It’s rewarding those of us who work really hard and continue to raise the level of excellence, but also keep good books,” she says.

Hurley reports that Theatre Pops is well aware of its economic contribution to the Tulsa community — “we spent over $50,000 this year in just paying local artists, musicians, union members, directors, and tech crew” — and believes that “AAT is going to help us continue to put on quality shows that sow right back into that community.”

For Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center, it’s the unity AAT brings that really matters. “Woody Guthrie certainly believed in the power of united voices creating positive changes in our world, and we know that being part of AAT will make each individual group stronger and the collective voice of all the arts in our community a force for positive growth.”

So what happens next? 

“Now the work begins,” Cunningham laughs. Among other efforts underway, AAT has already launched several “arts sampler” packages, where a flat rate gets you tickets to several arts events from member groups.

More than anything, though, AAT is about telling a more complete and vivid story of the arts in Tulsa.

“We’re hoping to prove with facts and hard data that what these artists are working so hard for in Tulsa is making a big difference beyond the creative and cultural greatness that it inspires,” Cunningham says. “That’s extremely important, but there are other elements we have to use to sell our story, not just as this esoteric wonderfulness we can enjoy or ignore if we want to.”

2015-2016 member organizations // 108 Contemporary, American Theatre Company, Arts & Humanities Council / Hardesty Arts Center, Chamber Music Tulsa, Choregus Productions, Circle Cinema, Clark Theatre, Fab Lab, Gilcrease Museum, Greenwood Cultural Center, Heller Theatre, Living Arts, Philbrook Museum, Pocket Full of Hope, Oklahoma Performing Arts, Sherwin Miller Museum, South Asian Performing Arts Foundation, Spotlight Theatre, The bART Center for Music, Theatre North, Theatre Pops, Theatre Tulsa, Tulsa Artists Coalition, Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Botanic Garden, Tulsa Camerata, Tulsa Children’s Chorus, Tulsa Children’s Museum, Tulsa Girls Art School, Tulsa Glass Blowing, Tulsa Historical Society, Tulsa Opera, Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust, Tulsa Project Theatre, Tulsa Symphony, Tulsa Youth Symphony, Water Works, Woody Guthrie Center

For more from Alicia, read her article on the Tulsa Modern Movement Gathering.