From across the pond comes Boo Ritson. The City Arts Center in northeast Oklahoma City is hosting an exhibition from the British artist. And the subject is something Oklahomans, and most here in the middle of the country, are especially familiar with – Americana. On opening night, the art wasn’t the only thing with a decidedly American flavor.
An international art exhibition should not have burgers out on the grill.
Or should it?
"I was absolutely fine with that. It’s unusual, but it’s perfect. And very well chosen."
Mary Ann Pryor is Executive Director of the City Arts Center, and discovered Boo Ritson’s work on a trip to Britain in 2005. She made a mental note, so when she went looking for the next artist to fill the walls, she knew where to go…
"It was a no brainer to bring it here, but of course it takes a lot of brains to actually manage the process of getting it here and putting on an exhibition. It’s quite a complicated process. Brains are involved."
Those brains were on full display at the opening night.
At a usual arts museum it’s quiet, with visitors resorting to whispers, and a certain kind of high culture on display.
But on this opening night, the music of Oklahoma singer songwriter Ali Harter filled the room where conversations were loud, the laughs were hearty and the stodginess of your stereotypical arts exhibition was tossed aside for a lively night. There was even free Oklahoma beer, to go along with the burgers.
"I was just really grateful that they wanted to embrace the whole flavor of the work, and to add to it. Because these are props really to the whole performance. It gives it context. The right context," said Boo.
She had never been to the center of America, just the coasts. Her art relied on the stereotypes of Oklahoma and Americana culture – don’t worry, there wasn’t a tornado in sight. So you can imagine her excitement when she had a chance to see the inspiration for her work in person.
"It’s Christmas every day at the moment."
But burgers, beer and pie don’t just appear at an art gallery. How did all of this come together? Here’s Rob Crissinger with the Center.
"Whenever we have a major exhibition, we like the opening to reflect and be an extension of the work. And we just thought, we’ll build a party that’s all American. And so if we’re going to be stereotypical, we’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it in style, so we did it like that."
Rob and others at the Center had a decision to make. It’s not a make or break one, but when your featured artist makes her first trip to a place she had only imagined, well, you want everything to go right.
"I thought people might be a little weird about it. This isn’t your typical art opening, especially for a big international artist like Boo Ritson."
But then again, for all those weirded out by greasy burgers, beer and pie at an arts show, there were plenty of younger people flooding the room. Kent Shafer was there with his wife.
"It’s an added incentive. Right now, I’m feeling pretty hungry so it’s feeling good. The burgers I’m definitely looking forward to them in a couple minutes."
Put aside the growling stomach though. Kent says they were encouraged by the art itself.
"We both have art backgrounds, and Oklahoma in general doesn’t have much pop art, or more progressive art mediums, so it’s nice to see a art show coming to the area that’s a bit different than your French hens or landscapes that normally dominate the art festivals."
Everyone got to chow down, drink up, and take in the exhibition. But for Boo, it appeared to be an immensely personal experience.
I asked her if this was an immersive experience.
"Yes. Totally. You know when you lie in the bath and you hold your nose? It’s like that."
"I’m probably the luckiest girl alive right now. It’s perfect. We don’t get perfect very often do we? And when we get it, you just need to stand and stare for a minute. Take it all in."
At one point, she stood by herself listening to the music of Ali Harter, no one within ten feet, with a smile slowly materializing. A Brit, smitten with Americana and Oklahoma culture. And a museum willing to take a risk for one night.