THE ENDURING QUALITY OF ART
April 22, 2021 - By Joy Reed Belt
Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building Memorial
There are times in all our lives we will always remember as turning points. We realize something significant has happened, but at the time, we are not sure why it is so significant. One of those times for me occurred in 1977, when I was appointed by the National Endowment for the Arts to be on the national panel to select art for the then new Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The project was sponsored by the Government Services Administration, the GSA. The GSA had introduced an Art and Architecture Program whose mission it was to place art in all Federal Buildings. When speaking about the program, its then Director, Jay Solomon, stated, “America has evolved culturally to the point of having an aesthetic vision out of the museum and into people’s daily lives---into their government buildings.” Initially the building’s architect recommended a nationally recognized artist to the GSA, but in 1972 the GSA, in an effort to increase acceptance of the art at the local level, began using panelists appointed by the National Endowment of the Arts. The GSA also began purchasing existing art instead of commissioning art for specific locations.
When the panel met in Oklahoma City in August of 1977, the members from out of town brought slides of artists they admired to present. Those of us from Oklahoma wanted the building to house artwork created by Oklahoma artists that reflected who we were as people. After a tough discussion, the panelists agreed to consider Oklahoma artists if we could immediately assemble examples of art by artists for them to view. The Oklahoma City Arts Council, The Oklahoma State Art and Humanities Council, OVAC, and other arts and crafts organizations were alerted and quickly spread the world of the amazing opportunity. A large room at the new Federal Building was filled with hundreds of pieces of art. The panelists, operating with a budget of $80,000 worked through the day and most of the night in selecting 32 works of art, including quilts, sculptures, weavings, tapestries, fiber sculptures, paintings and photographs that were to be installed throughout the building. It was an amazing feat. The entire process was an invaluable learning process for me.
Terry Mangat, "Oklahoma Quilt," Cotton and polyester, 7 x 6 x 9 ft., Fourth-floor elevator lobby.
Grant Speed, "Riders in the Distance Add to Risks of Rustling," Bronze Sculpture, 17 x 39 in., Second-floor elevator lobby window.
On April 19, 1995 I was sitting in a conference room in what was then Seagate Technologies executive offices when a Security Officer rushed in to alert us to the bombing of the Murrah Building. As were all of you, I was stunned and terrified. Later that day when it was deemed safe for me to drive back to my office in northwest Oklahoma City I thought about my relationship and history with that building and how the art we had selected was chosen to inspire and comfort all the people who had been killed. On April 20, just as other licensed therapists and counselors in the Oklahoma City area received a call from the National Red Cross asking if we could come to the First Christian Church and work with the families whose loved ones had been killed in the bombing. I did that for several days. Later, when I was part of a team that accompanied family members to the site, I could see a few pieces of the ravished art still hanging. Eventually I found out that there were 23 out of the original 32 pieces of art that survived. The surviving artworks can be seen at the Memorial Museum.
In my opinion, the most powerful and moving public sculpture in the United States is the “Field of Empty Chairs,” a grouping of 168 empty chairs that have been installed where the Federal Building used to sit. Each chair is a monument to one of the victims killed in the bombing and the name of the victim is etched on the surface of the chair. Three unborn children’s names are listed on their mother’s chairs. Handcrafted from glass, bronze and stone the chairs are luminous at night. Only artists blessed by God could conceive and create stationary forms that so clearly and sensitively communicate the eternal value of all living and lost souls.
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