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What art has to do with life

New Living Arts director hopes to invite and empower

Incoming Living Arts Director Jessica Borusky

Stephanie Eckerman

On a sunny Wednesday morning, having cycled down to the Pearl District in pink sunglasses, Jessica Borusky was getting to know Tulsa. Borusky is 30, dark-haired, quietly intent, savagely funny, and prefers the nonbinary pronouns “they” and “them” over “she” and “her.” As of July 1, Borusky will take the reins as the first new artistic director of Living Arts of Tulsa in 25 years.

“I’m very interested in what I call secret performances and secret sculptures,” Borusky mused. “That’s some of the best art I’ve seen. Instances that are really absurd: that’s the only way I can understand them. Oh, that was a secret performance going on. Humor understood broadly to include the tragic and the absurd. A way of coping in life, in order to exist.”

Borusky had emerged from a class at Be Love Yoga Studio in avid discussion with the teacher (“I’m a certified Pilates instructor; we were talking about the MindBody app,” Borusky said), and walked across the street to Cirque Coffee. A handshake later, we settled in at the bar amidst a scattering of devices, bags, coffees, a plate of spectacular buttered toast, and an open journal with a pen at the ready beside it.  

The journal and pen belonged not to me, the journalist, but to Borusky.

“Sometimes when I do interviews with people, I like to jot down the questions that are asked,” Borusky said.

As we talked, I began to see that the rigorous, humble transparency that would make someone keep a record of questions of possible interest to the community is a key part of Borusky’s way as a person, a research-based artist, and a new kind of facilitator for Tulsa’s bastion of contemporary art.  

With an MFA from Tufts University’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, work through the Women’s and Gender Studies Consortium at MIT, and three years’ experience teaching and curating performance art in Kansas City, Borusky combines the open, inclusive hopefulness of a millennial with the intense edge of an accomplished academic and artist in a field that’s very comfortable with thoughtfully sticking up the status quo.

At Living Arts, Borusky steps into an organization that for 48 years has been pushing at the boundaries of what art has to do with life.

Tulsa has quite an influx of creative dynamos at the moment, what with the Tulsa Artist Fellows and Philbrook’s new director Scott Stulen, among others. Much of the energy now driving the arts community centers around public engagement—which happens to have been a focus of Borusky’s time in Kansas City through initiatives like Alt Lecture, Flesh Crisis, and Art in the Loop.

“Even while doing undergrad work I was putting together performance art coalitions and education programming,” Borusky said. “How do you present innovative critical work that’s not only operating with its own history, trajectory, and practice, but also engaging the audience in a way that’s not invasive but invitational for the viewers? How do you invite and empower your viewers to engage this material?

“It’s never about silencing the artist. Rather it’s about proper curation, creating that dialogue so that it’s fruitful.”

In Kansas City, Borusky paired local and visiting artists to deepen relationships rather than simply hooking people up through networking or events. 

“I would invite, for instance, one of the baristas here to talk about making a specific kind of coffee, and I would pair that with, like, an abstract painter. I think very rhizomatically about how to curate not only an event, a partnership, a situation, but then sustainable relationships.” 

Borusky is also curious about how arts organizations can work not just with the community but with each other. 

“Any organization is also an organism which is constantly growing and changing,” Borusky said. “It cannot exist entirely on its own accord. Maybe by working with another organization there’s a different kind of grant that’s actually available to both! So what happens when you start to think outside those boxes? What then might become available to all?”

Since 1991, the job of Living Arts director has been held by Steve Liggett, who has been relentless in bringing contemporary art from every discipline and every part of the world to Tulsa viewers, and building a successful business model in the process. Liggett’s jaunty style sits comfortably alongside a vocal commitment to racial justice, true Tulsa history, and the sort of creative work that the Living Arts mission statement calls “history in the making.”

Steve Liggett“It’s a bittersweet thing,” Liggett said of his retirement. “I’m proud of what we’ve done. Really proud. This didn’t happen just because of me, but because a lot of people were able to make it work.” 

He recalled the previous transition at Living Arts, when he became artistic director after the late Virginia Myers. 

“It changed drastically when I took over from Virginia. She was a musician, a contemporary composer. She was brilliant, spiritual, classically trained. I had a ceramics background, and I was a director at Johnson Atelier with arts administration experience. This new director is really a performance artist and she’s going to take it her direction. 

“I know that Living Arts will change a lot,” he continued. “I think that’s good. The manifestos from those early days in the early ‘70s state very clearly that it is an organism. The mission has remained the same for 48 years: to present and develop contemporary art forms in Tulsa. As long as we do that, as long as we don’t get watered down, it will evolve and grow.” 

A retrospective of Liggett’s work will be on display in the gallery starting June 30, and on July 7 Borusky will curate their first show in the space. “Sense Vessel: Stimulating Porous Experience” features Tim Brown’s light sculptures, made out of nontraditional art materials, as well as S. E. Nash’s abstract sculptures inspired by fermentation. Nash will make ferments during the show, using vegetables that viewers bring with them (Borusky: “So bring your veggies, Tulsa!”), which will be available to take home on July 21. 

“Having these artists doing what they do plays towards what Living Arts does: yes, they’re object-based, but there’s an extension of the body that’s involved, either by way of the viewer in the case of Brown or by way of these living entities with Nash,” Borusky explained.  

For Borusky, the transition is less about filling Liggett’s shoes and more about honoring a commitment to, in their words, thoughtfully holding space for people to do their thing. 

“I’m interested in how Living Arts can continue to invite and empower and perhaps build new relationships to be organically in flux with how Tulsa is right now and set it up for future Tulsa and for a national and international contemporary art dialogue at the same time,” Borusky said. 

“Creating the seeds for that kind of investment requires a lot of different tools. The biggest one is letting people feel seen and heard and safe. If they don’t feel seen and heard and safe, they’re not going to give a shit. It sounds so silly, but care is so essential.”

For more from Alicia, read her piece on Habit Mural Festival’s second year.

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