Nancy McClellan is one smart cookie. Early in life she took opportunities to hear jazz legend Stan Kenton play piano and great American painter Thomas Hart Benton lecture on his murals.
Norman's petite arts organizing dynamo brought her passion for and knowledge of the arts here in 1968 and has been a luminary on the scene ever since.
Last month, the Norman Arts Council bestowed on McClellan a "Special Services in the Arts Award" in recognition of her continuing support and contributions. As with many who come here and stay, it was the University of Oklahoma that first brought her to Norman.
"My husband got a job as a systems analyst in the computing department at OU," she said.
The young couple had moved to Oklahoma City from Topeka, Kansas previous to that for another job. McClellan had grown up in Manhattan where her dad was a professor at Kansas State University. She studied fashion design at Stephens College and some of her designs were shown in New York City. McClellan then transferred to KSU in humanities, art and painting.
"I'd painted in high school but wasn't great," she said. "I'd grown up going to arts programs at KSU. My dad got me over to hear Thomas Hart Benton speak and hear Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton play while I was a teenager. My mom was a classically trained pianist who did some sculpting and drawing. I grew up with the arts."
McClellan continues to be an avid fan, attending Jazz in June and Summer Breeze festival performances. She doesn't just hang the visual arts shows now at The Depot, but often purchases some of the work for her private collection as well.
"In Norman I first become involved with the arts at Firehouse Art Center," she said.
Her marriage had ended, she was working at OU and also graduated from there with a degree in philosophy.
"My next door neighbor Clara Dumas was one of the Firehouse's founders," McClellan said. "I would go to exhibits there and started volunteering. Then I became volunteer coordinator."
She was invited to join the Firehouse board of directors as vice president. Later McClellan was president and then director.
"It was really a community arts center," McClellan said. "People came to have a good time and learn. It wasn't serious university art. We had a strong ceramics department and same with painting taught by Carol Armstrong. Elyse Bogart had a good jewelry department. Photography and fiber arts were also strong. There were children's programs for after school and summer. Marisa Bruner and I started Midsummer Night's Fair which went for years."
Firehouse added a gallery and later a gift shop. McClellan has observed the changes in Norman over the past 5 decades.
"I think the music scene has gotten stronger or I've become more aware of it, I don't know which," she said. "Downtown has much more to offer in the arts. I'm not sure everyone realizes that the arts are a strong economic driver. We pay sales tax on art sold here and draw people from outside Norman and even from outside Oklahoma. The Art Walks have been so successful. Corporations relocate to places where there's a strong cultural climate. Plus the arts are just good for people's souls."
Presently McClellan devotes much of her time with the various music shows and arts exhibitions at The Depot. She started the gallery there.
"I love it all," she said. "Being around the artists and art, the musicians and their music, hanging shows and writing press releases. I'm the volunteer gallery director and its fun."
McClellan has been coaxed out of retirement more than once.
"It's amazing how many talented artists we have here in Norman and all across Oklahoma," she said. "Norman is well-respected in the arts communities across the state. The support of the city of Norman is important. Others don't have the city owning, maintaining and inexpensively leasing out places like The Depot, Firehouse, Historical House and Sooner Theatre."
McClellan sees a need for more arts funding and better compensation for those working in arts administration. Several generous corporate and private donors help.
"It has been a lot of time and work volunteering but I love it," McClellan said.