Imagine a place where Garth Brooks, Brad Pitt and The All-American Rejects meet in an interactive, educational and groundbreaking experience. That’s Bob Blackburn’s vision. That’s what the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture is aiming for.
It would be a monument to Oklahoma natives who made it big, with a collective thread of music and popular culture tying it all together. Artist renditions of the completed museum are decked out with massive outdoor video screens and spotlights—a taste of Hollywood in the Bible Belt. Once inside, visitors will venture through four floors of exhibits.
The proposed site is currently a Bank of Oklahoma parking lot on the corner of Archer Street and Boston Avenue in downtown Tulsa’s Brady Arts District. For five years, Blackburn, the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, has been working with the idea and doing the necessary legwork to get the project off the ground. There’s just one more step necessary to make his dream a reality.
The Oklahoma Legislature must approve a $42.5 million bond issue this spring. If that happens, the OKPOP could be up and running by 2017.
“Ironically, I don’t need money,” Blackburn said.
Well, he does, but he also needs votes. Last year, the bond issue made it past the Senate by the narrowest of margins, getting the majority plus-one approval to move the measure to the House of Representatives. But when it reached the House, backers of the bond stepped back.
It was the last day of legislative session. There were other issues on the table that would surely take precedence over the funding of a museum. And OKPOP supporters believed they could garner even more legislative and community support in the next year. So that’s what they did.
Blackburn, and future OKPOP director Jeff Moore interviewed more than 200 potential candidates to be included in the museum. They reinforced a strong campaign message, backed by the support of film and music stars like Kristin Chenoweth, a Broken Arrow native.
But even with that push, the OKPOP stands at a major crossroads.
On one hand, it might seem irresponsible to approve a state-supported bond during a state-wide budget crisis, while possibly cutting state income taxes. And of all the possible projects to fund, why is this one the most important?
On the other, interest rates for bank bonds are at all-time lows. And the OKPOP has already received millions of dollars in support from George Kaiser and the Bank of Oklahoma. And if the bond isn’t approved now, will the OKPOP ever have a chance down the road?
Blackburn says no. This is the OKPOP’s last shot.
“The minute the governor signs that thing, I’m going to start celebrating, because I know we can make it happen,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to have a lot of fun pulling this together.”
Part of the fun Blackburn refers to is the continuing enrichment the Brady Arts District.
In the past few years, it’s started an evolution from a handful of music venues to an urban center geared toward artistic vision and community participation. It began with the Driller’s new stadium in 2010. It gained more steam with the installation of the Guthrie Green in 2012. Blackburn and Bob Fleischman, the president of the Brady Arts District Business Association, believe adding the first state-sponsored museum in Tulsa is the next step.
“We’ve just seen momentum build and build,” Fleischman said. “We’re becoming more of the real heart of the arts district in Tulsa. One of the things we try to promote, even with our monthly art crawl, is that we’re not here just talking about the fine arts—what’s hanging on the wall or the sculpture on the pedestal—we’re talking about the performing arts as well.”
Fleischman believes with landmarks like the Guthrie Green and OKPOP, tourists will do more than make day trips to the Brady Arts District. They’ll park their car, settle into a hotel room and spend an entire weekend on foot, exploring everything the district has to offer.
OKPOP is the next step. But at what cost?
According to Blackburn, the process for repaying the $42.5 million dollar bond will occur over 6 years, before the museum can sustain a “pay as you go” plan beginning in 2020. The first payment, due in the fall of 2014 at the earliest would be covered by capitalized interest. The following two years, would be covered with existing donations.
However, the remaining three payments, 2017-2019, which add up to roughly $6 million, are not funded—yet. Blackburn said they’ll need to raise it through fundraising.
“Even knowing that we have to raise that money, the minute we get the bond authorized and the governor signs it, I know we’ve got it done,” Blackburn said. “I know we can raise that, no doubt.”
The Oklahoma Historical Society has been successful in similar fundraising attempts. From 2000-2004, OHS raised $12 million for the Oklahoma History Center. From 2008-2012, it raised $8 million for the Cherokee Strip Regional Center in Enid.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation has already pledged a $1 million challenge grant for the project. The Bank of Oklahoma has donated the land for the museum and parking garage, a full block valued at $2.5 million. The City of Tulsa is pledging another $3 million.
Concerns over state debt have resulted in proposals in the Oklahoma legislature to cut state income taxes. As long as those tax proposals are on the table, many state leaders refuse to pass bond initiatives.
As Senator Sean Burrage (District 2) said last May, it’s like “taking a pay cut at work and then immediately running up all your credit cards.”
“If there was a vote on it today and the tax cut is still at issue, I would have to vote no, because it’s irresponsible,” Burrage said. “Last year, my entire caucus voted for the project, after the tax cut was off the table. I have no issue with the OKPOP. I have an issue with deliberately decreasing your revenue, while increasing your debt, when our state has so many critical needs.”
When Burrage says he’s got no problem with the OKPOP, he means it. He calls it a “marketing piece for the state of Oklahoma.” If given no proposals to cut income tax, Burrage said he’ll be happy to vote yes on the OKPOP, and explain to fellow leaders why it’s important.
“I think they need to realize that it’s not a Tulsa deal, not a Northeast Oklahoma deal,” Burrage said. “It’s a deal for the state of Oklahoma, to tell the rest of the nation who we are. We have a very unique state. It’s just a real opportunity we have.”
It’s early in the creative process, and the roster of Oklahoma natives to line the walls of the museum is far from set. But there are a few commitments. Most notably, Leon Russell. The rock legend who played alongside Bob Dylan, Elton John, Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones, and music collector Steve Todoroff, donated a 4,500-piece collection of memorabilia to the OKPOP that tracks Russell’s entire career.
And recently, the family of band leader Ernie Fields donated a collection of memorabilia to the museum. “It’s important to me and my sister that the state of Oklahoma honors my father’s legacy at the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture,” Ernie Fields Jr. told the Tulsa World. “The Ernie Fields Orchestra performed in all of the states, Canada, Mexico and Cuba. But, by choice, Oklahoma remained home because of his committed connection and devotion to his family.”
For now, the OKPOP remains an idea. Given it’s backing by local leaders and musicians like Russell, momentum for the project has never been higher. Much of its success in the Senate and House of Representatives will depend on timing of other bonds and bills to be introduced.
Blackburn remains confident it will happen. He sums up that mindset with a quote from David Dank, a Republican representative in Oklahoma County, from an OKPOP hearing in December 2012.
“Oklahoma does not have many cards up its sleeve to play,” Dank said. “If we do not play this one, color us stupid.”
Kyle Fredrickson is a 2012 Oklahoma State graduate, and former editor-in-chief of The Daily O’Collegian. Fredrickson is a beat writer for scout.com, covering OSU athletics. He’s interned at the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman and will be the sports reporting intern this fall at The Dallas Morning News.