NORMAN — Norman, Okla., might be most well-known across the country for being home to Sooner football and the National Weather Center. But for some locals the arts are the city’s best kept secret.
As the third largest city in the state, Norman — dubbed the “City of Festivals” — is home to many arts organizations and events, ranging from small and large to visual and performing arts. For Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau Communications Manager Stefanie Brickman, the city-wide success is thanks to many elements.
“Just because you’ve got the right ingredients in your cupboard it doesn’t mean it’s going to produce a fantastic meal out of your oven,” Brickman said. “You’ve got to be able to have the right kind of people involved, with the right kind of ideas and the right kind of man power that are going to put in the blood sweat and tears.”
And Norman has exactly that.
Erinn Gavaghan, Norman Arts Council executive director, said Norman has every thing it needs to create a successful arts community: public support, private support, talent and interest.
Norman’s arts catalyst likely began in 1980, Gavaghan said, when voters passed the city’s four percent transient guest tax, also known as the hotel/motel tax. Twenty-five percent of said tax was designated for public funding of the arts, to be managed and granted to arts organizations by the then newly formed Norman Arts Council.
“Coming back from the state arts conference, other communities are very envious that we have that built in here,” Gavaghan said. “And I think that’s one of the reasons that we have more arts organizations here in Norman than there are members of Allied Arts — and they’re all really strong. We’ve got small arts organizations and we’ve got big arts organizations here, and the whole gamut of performing arts, visual arts, humanities.”
Support continues for the tax, with voters passing an increase on the hotel/motel tax in the spring, raising the tax from 4 to 5 percent. The rest of the tax is given to Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau and Norman Parks and Recreation.
Funds from the tax — which comes from taxes on overnight stays at hotels and motels — go on to support organizations like the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Medieval Fair, Sooner Theatre, Firehouse Art Center, Performing Arts Studio, Jazz in June, Norman Music Festival, Norman Philharmonic, Cimarron Opera, Jacobson House, Pioneer Library System, Norman Public Schools, OU Musical Theatre/Opera Guild and more. The money also helps fund public art projects.
Jazz in June Director of Development Norman H. Hammon said businesses have also been integral to Norman arts community’s success.
“I’ve been delighted with individual, small business and other businesses in our community who have supported the arts,” he said. “With a community of our size and the kind of economy we have in our community we are doing better than most.”
Between the University of Oklahoma’s arts district, Norman’s many non-profit arts organizations, private arts organizations or events, as well as both public and private funding, Brickman said Norman is in the middle of creating an arts community that will continue to multiply and thrive.
“I would love to see the kind of arts, entertainment and cultural events that are regional draws and bring in people for long weekends, week-long festivals that fill up hotels,” she said. “Not only does that help the entire Norman economy but it also brings in more money directly through the transient guest tax, and brings in more money for operating budgets so we can help present more events.”
Gavaghan agreed that Norman’s arts community has unbounded potential and room to grow as a more recognized arts community both state wide and nationally.
“We have all of the talent and the organizations and the programs that we need,” Gavaghan said. “That’s already there. So now it’s just getting the word out.”
Gavaghan is working to solidify Norman’s arts identity with Start Norman, a hybrid community building model. The program will help further establish Downtown Norman as the historic arts district by pulling elements of Better Block, a project that demonstrates how community spaces can be used, and No Longer Empty, site-specific community art installations.
The tentative plan, she said, is to take empty building spaces along Main Street, install a temporary community-oriented art exhibit with associated month-long programming and highlight how those spaces can be used by businesses or organizations in the long run.
“I don’t expect instantaneous results but I really think it will move that discussion along to the next step,” she said. “We can look at artist renderings of how amazing downtown can be, but until you can actually play with it and have something people can physically see and walk through — it’s like a temporary, three-dimensional rendering of what downtown could be.”
The arts can help improve Downtown Norman, Gavaghan said, creating a space that is attractive and usable to artists, tourists and businesses alike.
Gavaghan said the investment Norman residents have made and continue to make in the arts has helped increase Norman’s quality of life and create a friendly, safe community.
“It just shows, too, that people really care what’s going on in their community. So it just pulls everything together,” she said. “You think about a sort of idyllic small town, that imaginary small town with the main street and the square and, ‘Oh, hi, there’s the mayor.’ I mean, we’re almost there. We’ve almost got that really idyllic community and I think the arts are pulling that together.”
As for what’s to come for Norman’s arts, Hammon is nothing but optimistic.
“I have never been more proud and more convinced of our future of the arts here in Norman,” he said. “When I see the dynamics and the cooperation and the good works being done and I remember back 30 years to where we were all struggling — I have nothing but a good feeling about our future and our community.”
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