United approach

Arts Alliance Tulsa provides supplemental funding and audience support to 39 local arts groups.



Sara Phoenix is executive artistic director for Theatre Tulsa, one of 39 arts groups that will receive support through a new funding stream called Arts Alliance Tulsa.

Evan Taylor

This past fall, members of Tulsa’s arts community gathered downtown in anticipation of a huge announcement. 

With key start-up support from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Tulsa Community Foundation CEO Phil Lakin unveiled Arts Alliance Tulsa. 

The new organization provides supplemental funding and audience support to 39 local performing arts groups and arts institutions.

“This is an enterprise that needed to happen,” says AAT Executive Director Todd Cunningham, an experienced advocate for local arts funding. 

Formerly Tulsa Ballet’s marketing director, Cunningham is now the director of marketing and public relations for the Tulsa Symphony. He also is the founder and former executive director of Tulsa Project Theatre and in 2013 co-founded COco LLC, a company specializing in arts and entertainment marketing. 

In 2014, the Tulsa City Council proposed eliminating funding to some of the area’s most historic and well-known performing arts programs. The threat of budget cuts alarmed those in Tulsa’s arts scene and set into motion the plan for an official alliance. 

“It was a pivotal moment, and we certainly wouldn’t be where we are today if that hadn’t happened,” Cunningham says.

Resembling a United Way type of funding model, AAT consolidates Tulsa’s arts fundraising efforts into one central organization without replacing current fundraising efforts by the nonprofits. Gifts to AAT from individuals, corporations and charitable foundations are collected for strategic allocation to local arts groups. Alliance members must prove 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to qualify for assistance. 

“This is something other communities have been doing for years, and we’re excited to be a part of it,” says Sara Phoenix, Theatre Tulsa’s executive artistic director. “The grants we receive help with specific programs, but we’re constantly searching for funding to help with operational costs.”

Now in its 93rd season, Theatre Tulsa presents 70 annual performances of 11 productions.

“There’s a lot of overhead people don’t see when they go to a performance,” Phoenix says. “We have to operate the website, heat and cool the office, pay teachers and keep up our insurance.”

In addition to performing arts groups, local multi-disciplinary spaces such as Living Arts in the Brady Arts District also will benefit from extra dollars to cover rent, utilities and staff.

“People and foundations want to help with the more sexy stuff like sponsoring Day of the Dead,” says Living Arts Artistic Director Steve Liggett. “But there are so many programs we do that need paid staff.”

A 40-year veteran of the Tulsa arts community, Liggett says the alliance is an upright, transparent giving option for arts supporters in the corporate world.

“Right now only 5 percent of Living Arts’ funding comes from corporate funds, but when a ONEOK employee, for example, can designate $5 a paycheck, it all adds up,” he says.

Arts Alliance Tulsa officials say national studies have shown cities with a united arts fund report corporate giving upward of 50 percent. Cunningham and his staff officially launched the organization’s first campaign goal in December, and fundraising begins this month.

“The time we’ve spent learning behind the scenes about our city’s arts organizations has been thrilling, encouraging and so very empowering,” Cunningham says.

AAT supporters say arts and cultural institutions translate to economic development for Tulsa, and as the alliance moves forward with a unified funding mission, members are excited about the possibilities.

“Tulsa has long been called the arts capital of Oklahoma,” Phoenix says. “And with new galleries and organizations popping up all over the city, this alliance will truly serve the needs of the arts community.”

 

For more information, visit www.artstulsa.org.

 

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