BY CARA DEHNERT
“While the major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and even my beloved Chicago are experiencing a population exodus, OKC is growing. According to census data, from 2010-2020 OKC’s population increased 17.4%, and is now the 20th largest city in America.”
After graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 2002, I quickly made plans to get out of Oklahoma. Even though Oklahoma City had been home for most of my life, I dreamed big city dreams. I spent two years in Dallas working in advertising, followed by three years in Lawrence, Kansas earning my law degree from the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk Jayhawk!). Then I headed north to Chicago.
Chicago was the big city I’d been seeking. I loved Chicago. I inhaled its skyline and exhaled its neighborhoods. I wrapped myself in its energy, diversity, food, creativity, and culture. I tolerated the winters, basked in the summers, and most days, even traffic couldn’t bring me down. While there, I made my moves: completed a master’s in arts management, practiced entertainment law, worked in public relations for an international art gallery, and served as the executive director for a multidisciplinary arts nonprofit organization. In 2014 I accepted a full-time faculty position teaching arts management at Columbia College Chicago.
But then: Covid. As Covid shut the world down, I looked around my tiny condo and thought hard about what an indefinite quarantine would constitute. I made a choice I never anticipated I would make: I decided to move back to OKC. Since my immediate family left Oklahoma, I only returned once since I had left, myself. I really had no idea what to expect; but even in my wildest moments of imagination what I found awaiting left me a little gobsmacked.
In the time I had spent chasing my dream location, Oklahoma City had made space for provocateurs. If you want to do something in OKC—something new and innovative—you actually can. There is a reason, after all, that the psychedelic band The Flaming Lips are from here, and even more importantly, chose to stay. Lead singer Wayne Coyne opened an art gallery called the Womb simply because he could. And many other experimental spaces followed in his footsteps. Sadly, the Womb is no longer operational, but in its place is Factory Obscura, a Meow-Wolf inspired immersive art experience. If you can’t already tell by the names: OKC embraces weird.
Even more notable is Oklahoma’s emergence into big media, movies, and television. Due to statewide tax credits and other financial incentives, directors like Martin Scorsese filmed projects starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Sylvester Stallone, and others here. This investment by Hollywood paved the way for local film studios like OKC’s Prairie Surf to pop up and take advantage of Oklahoma’s blossoming cinematic industry, and the region gains more and more traction as a suitable, nay, hospitable place for media production.
And film isn’t the only creative industry thriving here. The music scene has become just that—a scene. Due, no doubt, to the culture of experimentation and low financial and competitive barriers to entry, gifted musicians from Oklahoma historically thrive. From megastars like country’s Garth Brooks and pop rock stars Kings of Leon to emerging artists like singer-songwriter Chloe-Beth and the band Chelsea Days (both Jayaram clients!), a disproportionately high number of musicians (per capita) call Oklahoma home. And I’m absolutely here for it!
Now let’s talk about who’s setting the cultural table around here.
What’s new to OKC are the world-class venues available to host local and touring talent. Unique spaces like the Jones Assembly combine chef curated farm-to-table dining and craft cocktails with a modern, 1600-person capacity concert space. Located in an old Ford manufacturing plant and next door to boutique, arts-centric 21C Hotel (in its own right, a destination!), every detail was created specifically for the Jones. Its lavish furnishings provide comfortable dining for meals or seated shows and cleverly fit together and tuck under the stage for standing events.
In addition to the Jones, OKC’s Tower Theatre Group owns three venues of stair-stepped sizes. The smallest, 100-person capacity Ponyboy provides an intimate setting for local and small acts looking to connect closely with their audience, while downstairs, the group’s namesake Tower Theatre can accommodate up to 1200 people. Both are beloved and established, and sited side-by-side in a charming 1920s Art Deco movie theatre turned music hall in the Uptown Neighborhood. Nearby in the arts district is Tower Group’s third and newest venue; the 400-person capacity Beer City Music Hall. So, you can see, the cultural stakeholders of the city are not wimping out on providing right-sized and rightly-designed locations around here.
Best of all, in terms of employment, there is more demand than supply; every one of the venues is hiring these days. Young people wanting to work in the music industry don’t have to “pay their dues”, shlepping coffee and working until they fall down as unpaid interns. In OKC, future music business professionals can get their foot in the door with a paid (yes, paid) position, even with minimal to no previous experience. From a business perspective, OKC is incredibly employee friendly which means its also a fertile ground for the next big idea—or cultural producer—to make waves. If you build it they will come, right?
Along with film and music, I’d be remiss not to mention OKC’s ventures into the visual arts. Notably the relatively new OK Contemporary Art Museum and previously mentioned 21C Hotel are cutting edge spaces hosting exhibitions that are thoughtfully curated and consist of provoking and important works. Recently, the museum at 21C hosted The Supernatural, an exhibition that uses landscape works as visual representations of fear. Per Museum Director and Chief Curator Alice Gray Stite’s curator statement, the show attempts to illustrate how “(l)andscape, once the realm of the bucolic and pastoral, now appears alluring and alarming, fantastical, threatening, and threatened, reflecting the earth’s evolution toward an Anthropocene: a planet whose contours and contents will be defined by human activity.” You know, just a breezy gallery walk through our existential crises at hand.
OKC also appreciates the importance of public art as seen through their vibrant local programming. The galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars in the Plaza District neighborhood provide a canvas for Plaza Walls, a curated, rotating mural project managed and produced by The Oklahoma Mural Syndicate. The 18×18 spin painting Beautiful Mystical Exploding Sun Clouds Taste Metallic Gift Painting, a 2010 collaboration between Wayne Coyne and British contemporary artist Damien Hirst, is on loan to the city from Coyne and hangs in OKC’s convention center for all to see.
And finally—FINALLY—there’s the explosion within the culinary arts as well, including the James Beard nominated Scratch, Bon-Appetit’s Best New Restaurant in American 2018 winner Nonesuch, and Los-Angelese-turned-Okie restaurateurs’ Sedalia’s Oyster and Seafood.
OKC’s cultural expansion did not happen by accident. Let’s hear it straight from one of our most prominent figures in these parts. According to Mayor David Holt—who is currently serving his second term—supporting and promoting a creative community is a value he’s held throughout his entire career.
“In my 20’s I was my predecessor mayor’s chief of staff, and one of my earliest passion projects was naming something high profile after The Flaming Lips. It was kind of a silly thing, but I actually thought it was pretty important, because it showed that we valued our city’s cultural life,” Mayor Holt said. “I’ve carried that emphasis throughout my service. Whether it’s film, music, theater, visual arts or any kind of creative expression, a thriving city depends on having a reputation for creativity. And you can definitely tell that in the last 15 years, our city’s overall economic and population renaissance has coincided with a creative explosion in all art forms. These things are not coincidental.”
Mayor Holt is right. While the major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and even my beloved Chicago are experiencing a population exodus, OKC is growing. According to census data, from 2010-2020 OKC’s population increased 17.4%, and is now the 20th largest city in America. At the same time, OKC remains affordable; its cost of living is 15% lower than the national average.
OK, last time, back to me…
Once Covid eased, I collected myself and made another choice no one expected: to stay. I gave up my life in Chicago and accepted a full-time faculty position teaching music business courses with the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma. And as I dove further into the rapidly growing creative industries, I noticed that there was a gap between the incredible local talent and the spaces that are hosting the national acts. OKC is missing the middle rung of the creative industry ladder: the managers, the agents, the bookers, the promoters, and lawyers. I contacted Vivek (our Founder if you hadn’t heard) and asked if Jayaram had any interest in opening an office in Oklahoma City. Vivek, understanding the potential, immediately responded enthusiastically with a “Let’s do it!” I knew that he understood that if we break into the market here, truly supporting the efforts already in play, that we could be the connective tissue between all of these folks, much like we do in New York, Miami and Chicago. Our network of know-how is incredible.
So here I am, practicing law with Jayaram and teaching at ACM@UCO. Additionally, I am partnering with Oklahoma City University’s School of Law to build an entrepreneurship clinic designed to serve OKC’s creative community while teaching future lawyers the practical skills needed to succeed in entertainment sectors. All three positions complement each other. Whether I’m teaching music business students or law students, or representing Jayaram clients, the teeth I cut in my dream city of Chicago can effect real change right here in my everyday reality.
After two decades away, I keep referring to OKC as “life on easy mode.” Turns out, you can go home. And I could not be happier to be here, supporting the creativity and cultural development of this bustling city.