Historically, it’s best not to tell Steve Liggett he can’t hang a piece of art — even if it might or might not contain male genitalia.
Years ago, Liggett was artistic director for Johnson Atelier, the Tulsa Park and Recreation Department’s community fine arts center that we all know now as WaterWorks. He had arranged for an exhibition of artist S.K. Duff, who is an alumnus of Booker T. Washington High School.
"The work that he showed in the gallery at Johnson Atelier was all abstract work, but the titles were what got me," Liggett recalls. "I was ordered by my supervisor to, ‘Take down that painting with the penis in it!’ But I refused. All the works were abstract — and I didn’t see a penis."
Over the next couple of years, Liggett’s interests became more aligned with Living Arts, which was founded by Virginia Myers and others, including a coalition of University of Tulsa students and professors, in the 1960s with a mission of presenting and developing contemporary art forms in Tulsa.
"I decided that I would never work for an organization again that would censor art," says Liggett, who has been true to his word for 26 years as artistic director of the nonprofit Living Arts of Tulsa. He assumed the reins of the organization following Myers’ death in 1991.
"No one in Tulsa was bringing in the artists you’d see in Los Angeles or New York," Liggett says. "I really believed in the goals that Living Arts had — that Tulsa needed an uncensorable place."
On June 30, Liggett will retire; but he has plenty to keep him busy until then, including the New Genre Arts Festival March 1-4, one of Living Arts’ biggest and most nationally well-known events of the year.
But what happens after that?
"The plan is to have no plan or very little of a plan," he says of his retirement. "But I will always stay in Tulsa. It is my home, and I love it here. I have a clay studio at my house that I plan to utilize as a type of meditation and ongoing creative outlet."
Not that his tenure at Living Arts hasn’t been creative. In fact, he feels like Living Arts has been his artwork — a social sculpture, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Beuys.
Now, he can concentrate on new objects.
"To produce lots of work would be a joy to me," he says. "More time to devote to a piece that evolves into another piece and another."
What drew you to Living Arts? I had been introduced to Virginia through an odd circumstance. She was playing a George Crumb piece for prepared piano at Harwelden. This was right after I transferred to the University of Tulsa from Oral Roberts University, and my professor, Tom Manhart, suggested I go hear her in concert. I had no idea why a potter studying ceramics should go to a concert, but I respected Tom and went anyway.
I was shocked and appalled by what happened there. This woman crawled inside her piano and played the music from the inside. I had taken classes in demonology at ORU, and I knew that this woman was possessed, so I ran out of Harwelden in a huff. The next day in class, I asked Tom Manhart, "Why did you suggest that I go hear that demon-possessed woman?" He just smiled and said that I should hang around with this woman because she might know a few things that I didn’t.
What have been some of your biggest accomplishments? I’m very proud of being able to work with pioneers in contemporary art — people like Walt Kosty, Ralph Bendel, Ann Weisman, Georgia Williams, Michael Christopher and Marty Jensen, who were all part of the group that helped organize and form the Tulsa Artist Coalition and the Tulsa Center for Contemporary Art. But I think my experiences with Johnson Atelier and Donna Pond-Watson, the brilliant woman who conceived of turning a recreation center into an art center, was the real fertile ground that led to me understanding how to grow Living Arts.
Of course, much credit should be given to George and David Sharp, who bought the buildings and teamed up with the George Kaiser Family Foundation for seeing the potential in Living Arts and believing in what we were doing enough to help us with a building — actually, four buildings in the last 26 years.
Also, I’m proud of starting many annual events in Tulsa, including Dia de los Muertos Arts Festival, the New Genre Arts Festival, OK Electric, the Tulsa International Animation Festival, the 24 Hour Video Race, the Tulsa Poetry Slam, Love and Lust, the Living Legend Award, Tulsa Biennial, the Tulsa ArtCar Weekend, and Champagne and Chocolate.
How have you seen the Tulsa art scene change? When I first moved Living Arts into the building that is now the Hunt Club, the area was just waking from a yearslong sleep. The buildings were derelict, very much fixer-uppers. But little by little, galleries and artists began to move in, and David Sharp would let them fix them up. We began to call the area the Brady Arts District because we wanted people to know where we were.
It was not until Living Arts received our first grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts — we were the first in Oklahoma to receive this grant — that things really began to speed up. Then, the George Kaiser Family Foundation gave Living Arts a great home, asking us to anchor the Tulsa Arts District on the east side of their new plan. Now, we are in the midst of a renaissance for Tulsa arts like I have never seen happen here.
What do you foresee for Tulsa’s art scene? Anything is possible. What I hope will happen is that Tulsa will be smarter than many cities that have undergone gentrification, where the arts organizations and artist studios move in but are booted out by bars and restaurants as people begin to see the area as a cool place to live. Eventually, the offices renovate the area and artists cannot afford to live there anymore. We need controlled rents for artists and arts organizations so that this jewel of an area does not become another area like that. I also foresee the areas off-Brady emerging, since property within the Inner Dispersal Loop is already beyond the definition of reasonable.
What things are going on between now and your retirement at Living Arts? This May, we are planning a project called "Crossing Borders," which will deal with one of the most oppressed groups in our country: immigrants. In June, our "Examining Change: North Tulsa Art Project" will examine whether or not anything has really changed since Tulsa decided to form a city government with a mayor/council format. These are the kinds of programs that I am most proud of — the ones that deal with Tulsa’s underbelly and the social issues faced by every city and, as Leroy Chapman used to call it, "Tulsa’s Dirty Secrets." By exposing these and discussing them through art, we form a real dialogue — or as Kerry Walsh so aptly coined the phrase, "art that makes you talk."