(Photo Jaclyn Bell, courtesy Christina Beatty)

This is the latest installment of the interview series Meet the Art Community of the US Southwest. Check out our past interviews here.

Christina Beatty is the manager of public programs and community engagement at Oklahoma Contemporary. In her work, she cultivates a vibrant community around Oklahoma Contemporary by envisioning, developing, producing and evaluating creative and participatory public programs and experiences.

Before joining Oklahoma Contemporary, Christina served as community arts director for the Oklahoma Arts Council, and also facilitated the agency’s Cultural District Initiative, supporting communities of all sizes in leveraging arts and cultural assets for community development. She has served as a panelist for regional and national grantors and recently completed the Oklahoma Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship.

Christina holds a Master of Arts in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Managerial Studies from Rice University. A fifth-generation Oklahoman, she is passionate about the role that art, design and authentic cultural expression can play in illuminating our complex histories and contemporary realities.


How long have you been in Oklahoma?

I moved back to Oklahoma City six years ago. I had been in Chicago since 2007, first for graduate school and ultimately staying for seven years. That was a very formative time for me, both personally and professionally, but eventually life brought me home. I grew up and graduated high school in Oklahoma City and all of my immediate family lives here. On my father’s side our roots in Oklahoma run five generations deep so at some level, perhaps the gravitational pull was inevitable.

What is the first strong memory you have of art?

I didn’t really grow up visiting art museums, but I did attend a magnet public high school that offered deep and varied exposure to both visual and performing arts. Even though I majored in the heavily academic International Baccalaureate Programme (IB), I remember sitting in history class and hearing strings students practicing in the hallway. I sang in the choir, studied art history and photography, and made art my sixth area for IB, submitting a sketchbook to be evaluated as one of the requirements to earn the diploma. My sister attended the same school as a theater major and also studied dance. We used to joke that our school was the only place you’re encouraged to draw on the walls; it was a normal thing to see kids walking down the hall wearing outfits they had constructed out of duct tape or waiting out front for their rides as the end of the day cradling a harp.

What are you questioning through your practice right now?

It feels like there are always more questions than answers. My practice right now is really about creating connections, connecting with new audiences through programming, connecting the past with the present, connecting Oklahoma to the contemporary art world more broadly. It’s a delicate balance; I think many national and international readers might be surprised at the rich cultural experiences we already have to offer here, and at the same time, I’m always interested in pushing things just a little bit further. So I guess part of what I’m constantly questioning is “what might audiences want without realizing it yet?” or even “how much discomfort might be tolerable in the name of growth?”

What challenges do you face as an art worker in Oklahoma?

I think Oklahoma is a microcosm of the country in that we are wrestling with varying worldviews and political ideologies. We are also reckoning with our history in ways we haven’t before. Killers of the Flower Moon was published three years ago; next year marks the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It is a powerful time to be a cultural worker and have the opportunity to tell the stories of the many groups of people who have been here all along, to reflect on how our past informs who we are today. As much as I can’t wait for us to be able to open our doors at Oklahoma Contemporary, I am also looking forward to the First Americans Museum coming online next year and the expansion of Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center. There is another cultural institution in the works that will celebrate Oklahoma City’s civil rights legacies. Anything new is a challenge. We are carving out spaces now that haven’t existed before, reshaping the narrative of who we are as a city and a state. Does it feel like this is progress that should have been made already? Yes. It is also a privilege to be part of bringing long overdue visions into fruition.

What is the most impactful or memorable art experience you’ve had in the last year?

I had the chance to see 30 Americans at the Nelson Atkins last summer in Kansas City. It was powerful to see so many original works in person by artists I’d previously only studied and admired online or in print like Basquiat, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems.

When you are working a project do you have a specific audience in mind?

Community engagement is part of my role, so I am regularly thinking about multiple audiences. For instance, we’ve been working with Spanish speakers on staff and members of our local Vietnamese community to translate key messaging, from curator statements that will live in our galleries to updates for the website about our reopening plans. We are making plans for an exhibition next year which will hopefully build upon the community connections we forged last year with Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Oklahoma is Black. One thing I gained during my time in Chicago almost by osmosis was a basic understanding of community organizing principles that are now just part of how I approach my work. I try to carve out time at least once a week to connect with various community leaders and partners, whether to discuss an upcoming collaborative project, to encourage a local neighborhood association to plan an outing during our free Thursday Night Late programming, or to spread the word about our Teen Arts Council’s call for applications. Because our previous location was somewhat isolated, I am generally focused on raising the awareness of all of our offerings for the many communities surrounding our new campus. Some of this work is on hold now, but relationship building is always an ongoing process whether in person, by phone or email or on Zoom.

What questions do you feel aren’t being asked of or by creative people in your community?

I am very interested in community based practice or social sculpture, intersections of arts and culture and community development. That is an area where we still have room to grow. I’m not sure how often artists are being invited to leverage their creativity to identify solutions for the many challenges our communities are facing. This can be precarious territory when approached superficially, but has the potential to yield insightful, organic and culturally relevant solutions. We have to create more room for artists in leadership roles and decision making circles, and demonstrate that we value new voices and contributions.

What is your favorite way to engage with culture?

My first arts administration gig was with a festival that celebrated the legacy of jazz on the south side of Chicago, so there will always be a special place in my heart for festivals that showcase what is special about the host community, whether geographic or cultural. I really enjoy live music performance, and local restaurants are such an accessible way to connect with culture too, as purveyors of cuisine and as informal gathering places. Restaurants are in such a vulnerable position right now, I think it’s important to remember the many ways they add value to our communities.

What are you currently working on?

My primary focus right now is on making sense of the new conditions we all find ourselves under during this pandemic. We had to make the hard call to postpone our opening the day before the ribbon cutting was scheduled. As I write, we have been working remotely for eight weeks and are reimagining what public programs will look like when we can invite people into the building, understanding that we will have to proceed with caution for some time yet. Before all of this, we were planning a robust slate of programming for large crowds; now we are having to be more selective about which offerings will still make sense while having to limit audience sizes for public health and safety this fall and winter, and how to expand access digitally. Of course, we are simultaneously working on programming plans for next year when we can hopefully get closer to normal. I am excited to have some opportunities be involved with curating next year as well.

Who in your community of artists, curators, archivists, organizers, directors, etc. is inspiring you right now?

In the vein of social sculpture, the City of Tulsa partnered with acclaimed artist Rick Lowe to lead the Greenwood Art Project. I have been aware of Lowe’s practice since attending undergrad in Houston and am excited to watch his collaborative process unfold in partnership with local artists and community members to pay proper homage to the past and reimagine Tulsa’s Black Wall Street for the future.

Ellie Duke was the Southwest US editor at Hyperallergic. She also co-edits the literary journal Contra Viento. She lives in Santa Fe, NM. Find her on Twitter.