• The new Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center building, “Folding Light,” pays homage to the light and sky of Oklahoma. - photo by Scott McDonald

Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center
Rand Elliott Architects
Oklahoma City

Oklahoma Contemporary, a uniquely progressive cultural institution not only for Oklahoma but for the region, has opened its new campus in the Innovation District of downtown Oklahoma City. Dedicated to arts education and the encouragement of artistic expression in all its forms, Oklahoma Contemporary provides an accessible and inclusive arts experience to the community. The 4.6-acre campus includes the newly constructed “Folding Light,” a striking and sculptural nearly 54,000-sf building that serves as the central hub for the campus; a renovated 9,839-sf historical warehouse housing studios for wood- and metal-working, ceramics, and fiber arts; and the Campbell Art Park, a three-block-long park that provides space for outdoor exhibitions, educational programs, and public performances. 

The new purpose-built arts center sits just north of Automobile Alley, an upscale, hip neighborhood known for its 1920s brick buildings that were home to more than two-thirds of the city’s auto dealerships. Its chameleonic, faceted facade comprises 16,800 custom-designed extruded recycled aluminum fins, transforming in hue and mood in response to the dramatic changes in light and sky that characterize the local landscape. At times, the building appears gold against an indigo night sky; at others, a silvery iceberg amid a rare Oklahoma snow; at dawn, a soft pink fading into a powdery violet backdrop. And though under the right conditions it can virtually disappear into its environment, the building is not shy. Its sharp angles and dynamic form are, well, contemporary. Yet the vertical metal fins allude to a salt-of-the-earth functionality reminiscent of corrugated metal sheds and other industrial typologies. In a notoriously conservative state where even the word “contemporary” is occasionally contentious, the building is deft in bringing an edgier flare to the Oklahoma City horizon while remaining familiar to more conservative palates.

Designed by Oklahoma City-based Rand Elliott Architects, the concept for the art center was developed over a decade and went through more than a dozen iterations — from a single-story structure with a large sprawling floor plate to a village approach involving multiple smaller units — before landing on the final design, a four-story building that anchors the campus. The solution creates visibility and “the ultimate placemaking,” as Rand Elliott, FAIA, describes it, while conserving space to allow for future expansion — a rare luxury in a downtown location.

Eschewing the traditional historic tropes like the Land Run of 1889 and the Dust Bowl commonly referenced by other institutions in the area, the design team instead looked to “place, purpose, and poetics,” embracing the area’s unique weather patterns, quality of light, and native heritage as inspiration. “Through this process, I was looking for an idea that was more timeless, that was more ethereal, that was more positive in its approach,” Elliott says.

The concept of “folding light” is repeated throughout the building at different scales, evidenced not only in the vertical fins of the exterior but also in the case lighting of the hallway displays, the donor recognition panels, and the accordioned wood accents in the cafe, to name a few. The design team explored materials that would capture and hold the light rather than simply reflect it, a physical metaphor for the creative energy to be captured within the building itself. After mocking up five variations of building finishes with differing qualities of reflection and iridescence, the team landed on a bright-dipped anodized aluminum rainscreen constructed with nine modules of varying angularity that, in addition to channeling water, harnesses wind to reduce heat load on the building’s facade. 

On the southwest corner, a triangular lantern of spaced aluminum fins illuminated with vertical LED lights extends beyond the conditioned space and above the roofline to announce the building at night. This helps to counterbalance the fact that the rear of the building faces the street — an unexpected siting decision if it were located in a traditional pedestrian-oriented urban environment. But in a city of commuters vying for the parking spaces nearest the entrance, this orientation allows the building to maintain a prominent physical presence near the street edge while tucking parking discreetly behind the structure and building anticipation as visitors approach the door. 

A porte-cochère large enough to accommodate four SUVs shelters occupants from the elements upon arrival. The sculptural canopy is supported by three steel columns inspired by the tallgrass prairie of Oklahoma, with a single steel member extending beyond the canopy in a symbolic expression of the reach for creative inspiration. While the intent is appreciated, the gesture instills a disquieting feeling of irresolution. With that said, it is executed with precision, perfectly extending the datum line from the beveled edge of the canopy through the angled surface of the column itself.

Inside, the light-filled first-floor lobby is thoughtfully organized to lend a sense of expansiveness with smaller moments for interaction. Ample interior glazing activates the space by providing views to the outside and visually connecting the cafe, Creative Lounge, and gift shop to the lobby. Around the corner are four general-purpose studio and classroom spaces, an early childhood classroom, and a teen art studio. The corridor connecting the studios serves a secondary function as a gallery space for student work, constructed with metal backing behind the drywall to allow for magnetic hanging.

While Oklahoma Contemporary hosts ongoing rotating exhibitions, it is not a museum and therefore does not maintain its own permanent collection. This is an important distinction to make, as the center’s unfinished ceilings and exposed ductwork are more aligned with an industrial setting or atelier than with the highly refined aesthetic of most contemporary museums. Oklahoma Contemporary Artistic Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis explains, “I think the board felt long ago — and I concur with this — that at a certain point your collection pulls you back into history.” This arrangement allows the center to remain nimble and responsive to the creative zeitgeist of Oklahoma, while still presenting world-class art that can’t be seen anywhere else in the state through partnerships with collecting institutions. 

Notably, in the main lobby, a land acknowledgment (a formal statement recognizing the value of indigenous knowledge and people as traditional stewards of the land) centers the history of indigenous peoples in the region. While this practice is becoming more common, there are very few organizations in the country that display a land acknowledgment on a permanent structure. It’s a particularly complex issue in Oklahoma, as pre-contact cultures were already living on the land when other native cultures were relocated there through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, dispersed, and relocated there again. Oklahoma Contemporary worked closely on the effort with the First Americans Museum, another Oklahoma City-based cultural institution, which is scheduled to open September 2021 and whose mission is to educate the broader public about the unique cultures and contributions of the First American Nations. The land acknowledgment is only the beginning of their collaboration, as the center continues to seek guidance and contributions from contemporary indigenous communities. 

Beckoning visitors to upper floors, a twisting, ceremonial stair with vertical LED lighting and translucent, corrugated polycarbonate balustrades engenders a feeling of upward momentum. The second floor boasts nearly 8,000 sf of exhibition space as well as a sound studio, a multimedia lab, photography classrooms, an artist-in-residence studio, staff offices, and an outdoor terrace. A learning gallery precedes the main exhibition space, providing additional context for exhibitions to create a richer, more informed viewing experience. The inaugural exhibition, “Bright Golden Haze: Reflections,” featured the central theme of light as a medium for creating space. In fact, the building itself was included as part of this exhibition, with many of Elliott’s concept drawings featured in the learning gallery to illuminate the design process. As of this writing, the main gallery was exhibiting “Ed Ruscha: OKLA.” While Oklahoma native Ruscha is generally noted as a trailblazer of the 1960s L.A. Pop Art scene, this is the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s Oklahoma roots and, remarkably, his first solo exhibition in his home state. 

Virtually free of 90-degree angles, the gallery’s interior spaces express the same irregularity of the exterior, producing a non-traditional viewing experience that breaks the white cube paradigm. The dynamic angles communicate a playful, “don’t take yourself too seriously” attitude while also effectively encouraging visitors to move between spaces. Similarly, corridor walls do not remain parallel and instead move from compression to expansion as they peel back into adjacent spaces.

Opposite the artist-in-residence studio, a sizable north-facing terrace overlooks an event lawn and the Campbell Art Park, the building itself providing shade to temper the hot Oklahoma sun. “Having the land was a lifesaver for us,” says Oklahoma Contemporary Executive Director Eddie Walker. “Hosting outdoor exhibitions during the pandemic still brought people to us, and we were able to serve them. It’s a real asset that not a lot of landlocked traditional art centers might have.” 

Originally scheduled to open to the public on March 13, 2020, the art center had to postpone suddenly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We closed before we opened,” says Davis. “It was heartbreaking. For some of us it had been a decade in the making. We were the first cultural institution to shut down in the state. Our decision to close came the same day, but earlier, as Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.” Though they couldn’t welcome people into the building, the institution remained connected to its audience by working with local artists and educators to create studio-at-home programming and other online content before opening the building in limited capacity to the public on August 26.

True to Oklahoma Contemporary’s mission as a multidisciplinary arts center, the third floor features a flexible, 200-seat black box-style theater (though actually it is a dark navy blue) and a dance studio with views to the State Capitol that can also be used as a support space for the theater. The top floor houses administrative offices. “We hope to be a partner for some of the more traditional performance groups, where they can get out of their house and come do something that’s a little off-brand, which totally fits our brand,” Walker says. “We can be that safe space where they can play and do something edgier — and not have to sell 2,500 seats, so the economics work better.” Case in point, they recently partnered with Painted Sky Opera to present “As One,” an operatic coming-of-age story of a transgender woman. 

The art center’s handicraft studios are housed on the opposite side of the parking lot in an existing 1910 wood-and-masonry-construction warehouse, artfully complementing its newer, more polished neighbor while connecting it to the past. After digging into the history of the site, the design team discovered that the building had been used to manufacture light bulbs — a serendipitous and poetic connection to a project intended to honor the light of Oklahoma. The building was in rough condition when the property was purchased, with holes in the roof and some areas with rotting timber, but its functional and crafted nature serves as an appropriate analogue to the handicrafts born inside. Having the studio spaces in a discrete structure also provides an elegant solution for maintaining air quality by keeping the environmentally sensitive gallery spaces free from accidental contamination by sawdust or other particulates.

Oklahoma Contemporary is still following a phased opening strategy, but the center plans to host events over the summer as part of ArtNow, a biennial survey of work created in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, with no history of operations in the space to provide guidance, the leadership and staff continue to improvise. “We went from a mom-and-pop garage operation — and I mean that in no critical way: Great programs; great exhibitions. But it was all limited by an old building. Then suddenly, with the trip of a moving truck from the fairgrounds to here, we are a player. We felt it immediately,” Walker says. “We’re going to have several years of fun experimenting on our own, but also with community partners, about what this building and facility can be.” And, in doing so, Oklahoma Contemporary will likely be a pivotal catalyst for the community, pushing local culture beyond its comfort zone, challenging the status quo, and proving along the way that Oklahoma can be much more than OK. 

Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, is chair of TxA’s Publications Committee.

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