Commentary: Fostering Oklahoma’s creative growth 

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Moving from Chicago to Tulsa five years ago, I expected wide-open spaces. I imagined a never-ending sky and friendly down-home people. In many ways, Tulsa met those expectations.

What I did not expect was the true essence of Oklahoma’s spirit: a fiercely independent will to succeed, a drive to make a mark and a landscape of limitless potential.

George Kaiser Family Foundation’s (GKFF) storied history of investment in the arts began well before my time in this state, yet it captures Oklahoma’s spirit beautifully. Oklahoma’s major metro areas owe a debt of gratitude to the creative mavericks who paint, sculpt, craft and perform in our streets as they embody Oklahoma’s fearless spirit of independence and creativity.

The revitalization of Tulsa’s Brady Arts District as one of the most authentic and accessible cultural neighborhoods in the United States was unimaginable 15 years ago.

Inspiration from Tulsa’s art community fueled over $150 million in private investment in parks, apartments, offices, sporting complexes and restaurants in the district.

Oklahoma City followed a similar trajectory in the Paseo Arts District and Film Row. Artists paved the way, finding inspiration in the abandoned warehouses and quiet streets.

Cultural institutions pushed outside of their comfort zones, investing in unconventional ways to satisfy our state’s thirst for music, art, dance and community. Businesses took risks, passionately fighting through obstacles to create walkable, vibrant destinations.

The success of Tulsa’s artistic community inspired GKFF to bolster support for the arts. In addition to GKFF’s support of major cultural organizations, the foundation supports local theater, emerging arts groups and educational arts programming.

The creation of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship (TAF) to recruit and retain artists to live and work locally pays homage to the power of the individual to make change.

In the spirit of limitless potential, TAF enlists artists in a one-year fellowship with an unrestricted stipend of $20,000, free housing and free studio workspaces. Fellows also have the option to extend fellowships beyond the one-year commitment and stay in Tulsa.

The first cohort of the fellowship, focused on visual arts, arrived earlier this month.

Three of the 12 inaugural fellows are from Oklahoma, creating a vital mix of local and national talent for TAF. Other fellows came from locales such as Brooklyn, New York; San Francisco; Baltimore; and Juneau, Alaska. As they embark on ambitious and important projects, we know Tulsa will push them in exciting ways.

With fellowship applications for 2017 now open, GKFF is expanding the program to include writers. The foundation is committed to awarding up to 30 new fellowships and more than $1,000,000 in stipends, housing and workspace for visual artists and writers in 2017. The addition of the literary arts honors a rich tradition of famed Oklahoma writers such as S.E. Hinton and Ron Padgett, both from Tulsa.

TAF acknowledges the essential role the arts play in our state and invests in creatives to tell important stories. GKFF is proud to develop innovative programs to support the arts and expose the world to the spirit of Oklahoma.

For more information, visit tulsaartistfellowship.org.

Aaron Miller is a program officer at the George Kaiser Family Foundation and serves on the Tulsa Artist Fellowship committee.

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