The groundbreaking on Wednesday for the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture in downtown Tulsa will be remembered as a golden day.
Those turning the dirt wore golden hard hats like Tulsa’s Golden Driller.
They dug into the ground with golden shovels in the shape of guitars — a nod to the gold, custom-made Fender Stratocaster presented in 1954 to Eldon Shamblin, guitarist for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who road-tested Leo Fender’s products at Cain’s Ballroom.
As the dirt was turned, the title song played from the soundtrack of the musical “Oklahoma!” — the first album ever certified as a “gold record” in 1958.
Even “the wind is sweeping down the plain today in honor of OKPOP,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt as gusts whipped around during the ceremony.
“History is all around us, and it’s evidence of why this museum needs to happen,” Stitt said of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s planned museum, which will house collections of Oklahoma creative artists from music, movies, TV and more.
The governor described himself as a “proud American,” but “Thank God I’m from Oklahoma.”
He and several other officials spoke to a crowd of about 300 people, ranging from Oklahoma’s creative community to state lawmakers and more, who gathered on land across the street from Cain’s Ballroom where the museum will be built.
The groundbreaking was a decade in the making, between persuading lawmakers that Tulsa was the right spot and finding the funds to make it happen.
“It has taken so long, taken some time, but great things take some time,” said Jeff Moore, the executive director of OKPOP, who has been planning what the museum will look like for that past decade.
The plan is for it to be 60,000-plus square feet of immersive, rotating exhibits on three floors, with an event venue, a performance space and a large terrace overlooking downtown.
OKPOP will be located at 422 N. Main St. in the Tulsa Arts District, and the completion of the project is anticipated for late 2021.
Nabholz Construction has been selected to build OKPOP on land that was donated by Tulsan David Sharp and Interak Corp.
It will showcase the achievements of state entertainers like Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood and many more, as Oklahomans have sold more than 1 billion records, been nominated for an Emmy Award every year since 1962 and created iconic stories for the stage and screen.
Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, who is also the state’s Secretary of Tourism and Branding, told the crowd that tourism is the third largest industry in Oklahoma, generating more than $1 billion in tax receipts.
“We can be, and will be, a top-10 tourism state,” Pinnell said, promoting the appeal that OKPOP will have for the city and the continuing rapid growth of the downtown arts district.
“And Tulsa can be a top-10 tourism city. Tulsa is leading the way ... Stay gold, Tulsa,” Pinnell said, continuing the golden theme.
Ray Hoyt, president of VisitTulsa Regional Tourism, called OKPOP “a game-changer” that is “unique in a way that Gathering Place has proven to be” for the city’s tourism numbers.
Beyond numbers, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said that “Tulsa is the arts capital of this part of the United States” and spoke of how OKPOP can further spur creativity.
“We want Oklahoma kids to come to this museum and see what’s accessible to them” he said, “... Like a girl in high school who’s writing a story that becomes ‘The Outsiders,’” as happened to Tulsa’s S.E. Hinton.
Or perhaps like one of the mayor’s former classmates “who used to make a lot of videos,” Bynum recalled of actor Bill Hader. “This is going to be a spot where people come to be inspired” and then hopefully “go on to inspire others” themselves, he said.
Bynum also noted how these individuals give back to their community, pointing to Taylor Hanson sitting next to him.
“As the resident long-hair on this stage,” the musician said with a chuckle, before recalling his discussions with museum officials about OKPOP being a special place.
“Not just building a box full of old things, but something that lives,” he said, with a vision that “creativity is the best renewable energy” to be forged in Tulsa and beyond.
“We’re here because of the creators, and I’m proud to be part of a long lineage of creators,” he said while noting some who have died in recent years, generating applause as he mentioned musicians Leon Russell, Roy Clark and Steve Ripley.
The groundbreaking was not only the first step in a new phase for the OKPOP project but also a chance to reflect on the long road getting there.
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society and the man who coined the term OKPOP, was greeted by the first standing ovation from the crowd.
He recalled a blunt conversation that Tulsa philanthropist George Kaiser had with him years ago, regarding the number of state-funded museums in Oklahoma (32) and how many of those are in Tulsa (zero).
That is, until OKPOP.
He thanked the persistence of legislators like former Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman and former Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman, and he praised the embrace of OKPOP by local business leaders and people like Mike Neal, Tulsa Regional Chamber CEO.
Their support was invaluable when reaching out to legislators on behalf of a museum in Tulsa and encountering “some success, some resistance,” Blackburn said.
The Oklahoma Historical Society received $25 million in bond funds from the state to build OKPOP, but only after “striking out multiple years,” he said.
“You’re not just funding (OKPOP) but investing in our future,” Blackburn said.
Neal pointed back to Blackburn, calling him “the man I want in a foxhole ... You’re the one that made all this happen. Thank you.”
“For eight straight years this coalition went to the Capitol and talked to legislators,” Neal said, noting that many wanted OKPOP in their communities.
“When we were shut down year after year, we always came back together.”
Among those in the fight was Jamie Oldaker, the revered rock drummer and one of three members in Eric Clapton’s band in the 1970s from Tulsa who recorded and toured with him for years.
“The first reaction: This needs to be in Oklahoma City,” Oldaker said he was told by legislators who wouldn’t consider Tulsa.
“I said, OK, raise your hand if you know anything about arts and culture in Oklahoma, and none of them did. I told them, you’ve got the basketball team in Oklahoma City. The arts and culture should be in Tulsa.”
The OKPOP team has been working for years to collect photos, film and video, artifacts, audio recordings, and an assortment of archival materials that will best show off the creative culture that Oklahomans have brought to the world.
Artists who have shown support for the museum and offered to donate to the OKPOP collections include Reba McEntire, Tim Blake Nelson, Alfre Woodard and Kristin Chenoweth, among others.
And Oldaker, of course.
“I was one of the first people to donate,” he said. “I’m proud to say that I’ve been in on this for a long time.”
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