The Oklahoma Capitol renovation yields a new curated collection of public art.
The Art Institute of Chicago. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The … Oklahoma State Capitol? Our Capitol building may not spring to mind as a premier museum, but it actually houses one of the largest collections of public art in the state.
In 2016, during the facility’s renovation, the Oklahoma Arts Council undertook removal of the majority of the hundreds of art pieces in the Capitol collections from the building, and restored pieces as needed. Arts Council executive director Amber Sharples said, “We did a complete data dive: What events, people, resources and ecosystems were represented in the collection and what was missing. We were able to fill in gaps to make sure that people from all over the state felt represented.”
The reinstallation of art throughout the public spaces in the Capitol has been a thoughtful process. Works in the collection, which focus on the events, landscapes and people of Oklahoma, were installed in both chronological and thematic groupings, with the goal of building an educational curriculum for all to enjoy. The Oklahoma Arts Council commissioned 21 new pieces by artists tied to Oklahoma to enhance the collection, most of which are already on display. “We’ve thought about our visitors and created a plan so they’re moving through the building and experiencing curated spaces,” said Jarica Walsh, the council’s director of visual and public art. “It’s a very intentional museum experience.”
The collection begins at the visitor’s entrance on the lower level, where the theme is pre-statehood and where several of these new commissions are located. “People of the Great Sky, Constellations of the Land” by Dr. Jessica Moore Harjo (Otie-Missouria/Osage Nation/Pawnee/Sac & Fox) is a breathtaking brass ceiling installation that incorporates Indigenous designs. “The Resonating Memory of Red Earth” by Anita Fields (Osage Nation) is a mixed-media piece that includes clay found from around the state to bring pieces of the earth into the artwork.
Inside the rotunda, a new four-panel mural suite by Lucas Simmons entitled with our state motto, “Labor Omnia Vincit (Labor Conquers All),” surrounds the new 14-foot bronze state seal embedded in the floor. Each mural panel features 20 figures from over 200 years and represents a different area of the state. The attention to detail is astounding — the panel representing forestry and mining from southeast Oklahoma is placed at the southeast corner of the rotunda. The lower level also features art representing early statehood and our Western heritage.
Moving up through the remaining four public floors of the Capitol building, visitors can learn about all aspects of Oklahoma through the art. In exploring Oklahoma’s African American history on the first floor, Cultural Treasures and the Hall of Heroes on the second floor, Celebrating Oklahoma’s Legacy on the fourth floor and Roots of Oklahoma, Commerce and Economic Development on the fifth floor, viewers will find illuminating and engaging pieces.
There are also three rotating galleries displaying 18 exhibitions a year. These include the North Gallery and East Gallery on the first floor and the Governor’s Gallery on the second floor, each displaying new art every 60 days.
Docent-led and self-guided tours are available, and the Capitol is open year-round for visitors to enjoy the art. “This is the people’s art in the people’s house, and we want every Oklahoman to feel welcome,” Sharples said. “This is the collection we all own and we want everyone who visits to have pride in celebrating our Oklahoman artists.”