182 Oklahoma nonprofit arts organizations set to benefit from $10M in ARPA funds

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In the crowded second-floor rotunda of the state Capitol Thursday, Sunny Cearley watched alongside a ballet dancer in pointe shoes as singers with the Tulsa Opera gave a full-throated performance from a small temporary stage.

"It's not your average day at the Capitol. And we're proud of that," said Cearley, the president and CEO of Allied Arts OKC.

More than 500 directors, board members and staffers from Oklahoma nonprofit arts organizations statewide gathered at the state Capitol Thursday to celebrate the awarding of $10 million in state American Rescue Plan Act funds intended to rebuild the Oklahoma cultural sector still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lydia Gray with the Tulsa Opera performs April 11 during the Oklahoma Arts & Culture Day at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.
Lydia Gray with the Tulsa Opera performs April 11 during the Oklahoma Arts & Culture Day at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.

"I cannot tell you how thrilled I am ... at the extraordinary turnout of Oklahomans who are here today, from every corner of our state, to celebrate this historic moment for the arts," Oklahoma Arts Council Executive Director Amber Sharples said as she took the stage.

"We are a sector that brings people and communities together, yet for months on end, we were unable to do what is in our nature to do due to the pandemic. Ultimately, this showed up in our bottom line and continues to affect us. ... Yet, at a time when there was plenty of reason for despondency and surrender, the Oklahoma arts sector chose hope and perseverance."

An ensemble from the Oklahoma City Philharmonic performs April 11 during the Oklahoma Arts & Culture Day at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.
An ensemble from the Oklahoma City Philharmonic performs April 11 during the Oklahoma Arts & Culture Day at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.

Why were $10 million in ARPA funds earmarked for the Oklahoma arts sector?

Dozens of organizations from across the state gathered Thursday morning for Oklahoma Arts & Culture Day at the Capitol, an annual advocacy event and sector showcase organized by the nonprofit Oklahomans for the Arts.

After a barbecue lunch, Gov. Kevin Stitt and several state legislators joined in a celebration of the arts sector ARPA grants.

Spearheaded by the state Arts Council, along with Allied Arts OKC and Arts Alliance Tulsa, the ARPA for Arts and Culture proposal sought a once-in-a-lifetime post-pandemic investment in arts and cultural infrastructure statewide. Organizations like Oklahomans for the Arts and the Oklahoma Museums Association supported the proposal.  

The proposal originated in the Economic and Workforce Working Group of the Legislative Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding, and the group’s recommendation was unanimously approved by the full committee before its enactment by Stitt last May.

Sunny Cearley, President & CEO, Allied Arts OKC, speaks at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Thursday, April 11, 2024. Members of the Oklahoma arts community gathered for a celebration of the distribution of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help rebuild the arts sector following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sunny Cearley, President & CEO, Allied Arts OKC, speaks at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Thursday, April 11, 2024. Members of the Oklahoma arts community gathered for a celebration of the distribution of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help rebuild the arts sector following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $10 million investment in the arts came from the $1.87 billion in federal ARPA pandemic relief funds allocated to the state. The state Arts Council Thursday presented the joint committee members and Stitt with special glass plaques created by OKC artists Rick and Tracey Bewley.

"In the first nine months (of the pandemic) alone, grantees of the Oklahoma Arts Council reported nearly a $44 million loss of earned and contributed income. One-third of these organizations lost 75% or more of their income. As a result, jobs were eliminated, positions unfilled, and staff members went unpaid. ... More than 6,000 artists' contracts were canceled in that nine months." Sharples said.

"Time and again, when faced with a challenge, the arts dig in and find a way to triumph."

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks on April 11 at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.
Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks on April 11 at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.

ARPA funds awarded to 182 arts organizations across Oklahoma

Last fall, a meticulous grant process for dispensing the $10 million in ARPA funds was rolled out, and more than 230 nonprofit organizations started the multi-pronged process. The Oklahoma Arts Council took the lead in administering the grants in partnership with Allied Arts OKC and Arts Alliance Tulsa.

"We had many meetings throughout the months to make sure that our policies and guidelines aligned with state and federal rules. So, it was very rigorous," said Oklahoma Arts Council spokesman Joel Gavin.

"This was the type of unity and partnership ... that was unprecedented at this level and for this duration. And we want to do more and intend to do more."

After subtracting the cost of administering the grants, $9.8 million in ARPA grants recently were awarded to 182 arts organizations in communities of all sizes across the state, from the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra and the Woodward Arts & Theatre Council to the Red Carpet Community Theatre in Elk City and the Seminole Nation Museum in Wewoka.

Carson Berry with the Oklahoma City Ballet stands on April 11 by a booth during the Oklahoma Arts and Culture Day at the Capitol.
Carson Berry with the Oklahoma City Ballet stands on April 11 by a booth during the Oklahoma Arts and Culture Day at the Capitol.

Of the total investment, $3.4 million was dispersed to Oklahoma County organizations, $2.5 million to Tulsa County and $3.9 million to rural counties across the state.

"The great thing about the arts is they're not just limited to big metro areas: People from even the most rural parts of Oklahoma can pursue the artistic endeavors that God has put on their hearts," Stitt said. "Those grants are now being dispersed all across the state to 87 rural organizations and 95 urban organizations. Can't wait to see how that gets rolled out through the state. So, this $10 million historic investment is really going to help promote the arts across Oklahoma."

An ensemble from the Oklahoma City Philharmonic performs during the April 11 Oklahoma Arts and Culture Day at the Capitol.
An ensemble from the Oklahoma City Philharmonic performs during the April 11 Oklahoma Arts and Culture Day at the Capitol.

Woody Guthrie, Toby Keith and more name-dropped as state leaders praise ARPA arts funding

During the celebration, state leaders waxed eloquently about the power of arts to change lives. Todd Cunningham, executive director of Arts Alliance Tulsa, said when he watched the tribute to the late Oklahoma country music superstar Toby Keith during the April 7 CMT Music Awards broadcast, he found himself watching a former schoolmate from his hometown of Locust Grove: Mica Roberts, Keith's longtime backup singer.

"She's as beautiful as she is talented. She and Toby toured the world together for over a decade ... and she has had a remarkable career with Toby, and before that, with Faith Hill," Cunningham said. "She was a grade ahead of me in high school, and we were in marching band together. And we always attended arts-related field trips together. ... I wonder if the legislators back in the '70s and '80s could have ever imagined the impact their investment in the arts at that time in Oklahoma would have on a girl from Locust Grove — or on a girl from Broken Arrow who would one day be known as the most 'Popular' person on Broadway."

Todd Cunningham, executive director of the Arts Alliance Tulsa, speaks at the Capitol on April 11 for a celebration of the distribution of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help rebuild the arts sector following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Todd Cunningham, executive director of the Arts Alliance Tulsa, speaks at the Capitol on April 11 for a celebration of the distribution of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help rebuild the arts sector following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Roger Thompson, who co-chaired the Legislative Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding, talked about the moving experiences he's had at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his hometown of Okemah. The nonprofit Woody Guthrie Coalition, which puts on the summer music festival, was one of the ARPA grant recipients.

"When I go out to the Pastures of Plenty, there are folks out there who don't look like each other. They don't have the same political beliefs. Many of them don't speak the same language, because they come from around the world. But it is the art world that has brought us all together, speaking the same language and speaking it through song," Thompson said.

Stitt bragged to the crowd about his oldest daughter, Natalie Stitt, an artist who studied art at Baylor University before starting law school.

"People are drawn to creative places, and families want to live where there's an abundance of cultural amenities. Businesses want to go where there's innovative thinkers," he said. "The Lord blesses each of us with unique talents and abilities, and I want Oklahoma to be a state where people can show off those abilities."

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: $10M to help Oklahoma nonprofit arts groups rebuild after COVID