Arts Alliance Tulsa is a United Arts Fund which includes 39 member organizations in Tulsa, ranging from the Philbrook Museum and Tulsa Opera to smaller venues such as the Spotlight Theater and Theatre Pops.
One of AAT’s main tasks is providing grants to each of its 39 member organizations. However, AAT Executive Director Todd Cunningham explained that there’s a lot more to the organization than fundraising.
“We help with economic development, quality of life, health and education,” he said. “Those are the four pillars of what we really try to support and advocate for.”
For AAT, economic development begins with fostering an “arts industry” in Tulsa.
“[A] really big responsibility that’s come across to us recently is that cultural tourism is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and people that participate in cultural tourism — for example, they come here for the weekend, and maybe go to the ballet, and go to the symphony, and go off to the Philbrook and the Gilcrease or some other galleries — they spend more…than people who come into town for, say, a sporting event,” Cunningham elaborated.
“So we’re really trying to grow that because it could be such a boon to our economy. We’re constantly looking for new industry beyond the oil industry and energy industry…Tulsa is prime for using this as a selling tool.”
Promoting this arts industry also involves encouraging collaboration between AAT’s 39 member organizations, lobbying and advocacy work.
“We made the presentation and also lobbied for the inclusion of the sales tax in the Vision package, which is historic because Tulsa’s never done anything like that. There’s very few cities — most cities do a hotel/motel tax and they use that to fund the arts. In our research we’ve found that the top 10 cities for people under the age of 35 to want to live in all had some sort of tax that went to the arts.”
The Vision sales tax, which goes into effect January 1, 2017, will provide an additional $2 million for the arts over a period of 15 years. Cunningham is thrilled that Tulsa has taken this step to fund the arts. He explained that not only will the additional funding be helpful, but the legislation also sets a great precedent for valuing the arts in Tulsa.
“We’re one of just a handful of cities in the country that actually have a sales tax that goes to the arts. That really sets us apart from everybody else,” he clarified. This value placed on the arts, as well as the availability of arts in Tulsa, improves the quality of life for Tulsans.
“We’re the only small size city that has an opera, a ballet, and a symphony. Most cities our size don’t have those things. We’re very fortunate here,” Cunningham said.
AAT and its member organizations also do a great deal to promote arts education — particularly in a state where arts funding is often in danger of facing budget cuts. “Of course, everybody knows the first thing that’s cut when school funding is cut is the arts. Always,” Cunningham chuckled.
However, most of AAT’s member organizations have reached out to local schools in order to help grow their arts programs. “This didn’t start with the Arts Alliance — these organizations have been doing this for decades now,” Cunningham said. “But we’re able to help coordinate and get the word out about how important it is…Pretty much every one of [the member organizations] has some sort of school program. In fact, we’ve found that combined our organizations serve 167,000 kids a year. That’s really great, really exciting,” he enthused.
These member organizations can only provide for schools that are short on funding when they have sufficient funding themselves. While the fundraising AAT provides isn’t its only service, Cunningham maintains that it does help to fill in the gaps when state funding falls short.
“When budgets are cut in the city, in the state, they’re not just cut for education, they’re also cut for the Oklahoma Arts Council. They’ve seen their budget cut every year for the last several years, and it’s usually a pretty hefty cut, like 16, 17 percent.” That means, Cunningham explained, that state funding from the Oklahoma Arts Council has dwindled over the years.
“We will actually in our first year provide more money to the arts in Tulsa than the Oklahoma Arts Council,” he said. “That’s a big deal. Is it enough? No. But are we helping to fill that gap? Yeah. We’re here to help empower them to continue to grow when they’re faced with budget cuts.”
Other services AAT provides to the community include a comprehensive events calendar, which can be found at artstulsa.org, and a collaboration with Grace Hospice called For Love and Art, which strives to bring art to hospice patients and other bedridden or immobile individuals.
Cunningham noted that he would love to see TU students getting involved with AAT. In the spring, AAT will host a lip-sync competition called Lip Bomb in order to fundraise, which Cunningham hopes student organizations at TU will get involved in.
“We would love for TU and TU students to get involved in our campaign when it starts in the spring, to join in Lip Bomb, come volunteer — we work every First Friday in the Brady Arts District. If anybody needs a community project, this is a way they can be involved with 39 arts organizations and get some really cool experiences.”
As it begins its second year in Tulsa, AAT hopes to continue fostering collaboration between its member organizations.
“We’re so much more powerful and we offer so much more to the community as a combined whole,” Cunningham said. “Together we serve 1 million people annually. Individually, some of our organizations are so small that they might serve, you know, a few hundred.”
“As a group, the smallest of us and the largest of us is stronger by all of us working together.”