All in for the arts

Arts Alliance Tulsa mural by Josh Butts in the Brady Arts District

In October 2015, Arts Alliance Tulsa formed out of a need, like many nonprofits. But the need they sought to fill—universal funding for the arts—was a bit different for the Tulsa nonprofit landscape.

Similar to Allied Arts in Oklahoma City, Arts Alliance Tulsa (AAT) acts as a united arts fund, which raises money from corporations, businesses, and individuals, then distributes the funds to member organizations that have requested grants. 

"We do also approach foundations for money," said Chad Oliverson, marketing director of AAT. "But if they’re already supporting arts organizations and are at their capacity for that, we thank them and move on."

In other words, AAT isn’t here to take money away and redistribute it as they see fit, but to raise new funds for distribution. 

"Originally, we had planned a million-dollar campaign," said Todd Cunningham, executive director of AAT. "In the end, we had 39 [organizations] apply and over five million dollars in requests. So we realized a million-dollar goal wouldn’t really suffice. The need was much greater than we anticipated."

Hoping to meet in the middle between what they had originally planned and what the requests came to be, they set their 2016 goal for $2 million. In the end, AAT raised just over $800,000 dollars.

"Overall, I think we did great," said Cunningham. 

Oliverson agreed. "We put out a goal of two million to try to hit that, which we didn’t. Putting that aside, we definitely feel it was successful. Do we feel there’s room to grow? Absolutely. We’re not content, but it was a successful year in so many ways."

AAT was able to support 39 organizations through its 2016 campaign, including Living Arts, The Spotlight Theatre, Clark Youth Theatre, Circle Cinema, Fab Lab, Tulsa Girls Art School, Tulsa Ballet, and many more. These organizations, in total, have a $40 million budget and generate $6 million in sales tax impact. The 39 organizations also support 2,000 jobs in Tulsa and generate a revenue of over $62 million a year, and serve one million Tulsans with their programming and services annually. 

For Cunningham, those numbers are part of why AAT formed. 

"Before AAT, Oklahoma had not participated in the Americans for the Arts study on arts economic impact," Cunningham said. Americans for the Arts documents the nonprofit arts and culture industry’s role in the nation’s economy through their Arts and Economic Prosperity report. 

"I was stunned that Oklahoma hadn’t found it necessary to participate. So, that story wasn’t being told. Tulsa is an extremely generous city and we have people who have invested in the arts for 100 years—but we need more people to invest in the arts and understand its importance in our community. If we don’t know what our economic impact is, then how do we get people to invest in its future?"

Besides funding its member organizations, which become members by applying annually, AAT also tracks economic impact here in Tulsa. 

"We have an application process every year for two reasons," Oliverson said. "One, we want to them to want to continue with us and, two, we collect data every year that helps us grow our records, so we can track what the arts and culture scene is doing for Tulsa—how many people employed, what money did they make, what underserved populations were served, et cetera. We’re kind of a databank, as well."

"40 organizations is the most we can handle for now," Cunningham said. "More than half of our organizations receive little-to-zero support from the Oklahoma Arts Council, so we’re able to help fill that void. As their budget continues to be cut, we hope we’re in a place where we can make up lost revenue for larger organizations."

On the landing page of AAT’s website is a quote by Vincent Van Gogh: "Great things are done by a series of small things brought together." 

To Oliverson, that means helping unify the arts and culture resources of Tulsa. "When you bring them together, it becomes an industry," he said. "What they do for our economy, our quality of life, our educational system, our health systems, for our vets, our nursing homes, our underserved populations—when you look at the numbers, when you add all of those little things that they’re doing together, it becomes an amazing entity." 

By raising money and growing audiences, AAT is helping that entity. 

"In order for our member organizations to continue their education programs they need someone to help them keep the lights on," Cunningham said. "We are helping with operational support. And also with audience development—we want to grow the untapped market, which is cultural tourism. Tulsa has so much to offer." 

"We don’t have mountains for skiing," Oliverson said. "We have the arts."

For more from Liz, read her piece on the Tulsa Artist Fellows exhibition, "Syncretic."

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