The shiny gold building inspired by Eldon Shamblin’s Stratocaster has been finished for nine months, but when — or even if — the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture at 422 N. Main St. might open is anyone’s guess.
Across the street from Cain’s Ballroom, within blocks of the Tulsa Theater and the Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan centers, OKPOP is thought to be a guaranteed success. Ever since it was first proposed in 2008 and made public in 2009, backers have insisted OKPOP will be self-sustaining — if it can just get built.
And that’s the problem.
About $30 million has already been spent, including $25 million from a state bond issue. That also includes the donation of the land on which it sits and revenue from a tax increment financing that paid for upgraded utilities that helped several other properties in the area.
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Officials, though, say another $35-$40 million is needed to finish out the interior, including installation of exhibits. A request for $20 million from the state’s $1.8 billion American Rescue Plan allocation was turned down, and legislative leadership seems cool to further funding the project.
Last session, the Legislature agreed to a $46 million bond issue for the Oklahoma Historical Society on the condition none of the money be used for OKPOP.
Nevertheless, OHS Executive Director Trait Thompson said OKPOP “is going to open” when asked last week during a conversation on the new building’s third-floor outdoor terrace overlooking downtown Tulsa.
But, he acknowledged, “We’re on a burn rate. … We’re pretty good through the end of the (fiscal) year.”
That means Thompson and OKPOP Executive Director Jeff Moore have about nine months to find a way to bring to life what they say would be a museum in the same league as Seattle’s MoPOP, Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame.
“We’re not going to stand still,” Thompson said. “We need to start raising money in earnest.”
They also haven’t given up hope of getting some state assistance.
State Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat has in the past been unenthusiastic about museum projects, but his spokesman, Alex Gerszewski, said in a text that “Pro Tem Treat isn’t opposed to finding a path forward for the museum, whether it’s through additional funding, or a partnership between the museum and the City of Tulsa. He first wants to analyze all of their needs and make a decision that is most beneficial for the museum and the state of Oklahoma.”
Thompson said the city has committed $1 million on ARPA funds to the project and has already kicked in several million dollars besides. Tulsa County has pledged $2 million in ARPA money.
But that still leaves OKPOP far short of what’s needed, and the city is also looking at a Gilcrease Museum rebuild that is $30 million over budget.
According to Moore, the idea of a popular culture museum first came up during a conversation between him and fellow OHS staffer Larry O’Dell in 2008. Bob Blackburn, Thompson predecessor as OHS executive director, liked the concept and a year later was pitching it in Tulsa.
Blackburn’s original cost estimate was $33 million, but soon that had been upped to $42.5 million. He tried for several years to sell the Legislature on a bond issue for that amount, and appeared close to closing the deal in 2013 but a tornado outbreak at Moore caused supporters to withdraw the proposal.
With the assistance of then-Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, Blackburn was able to get a $25 million in bond issue in 2015. That was part of a package that included an identical amount for what became the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.
Bingman said recently it was clearly understood at the time that the $25 million was all the state would put into the project. Facing tight budgets, lawmakers were not in the mood to spend money on museums. The state had already poured more than $100 million into the Oklahoma City project over two decades and in 2015 had been idle for three years.
Oklahoma now has a $2.8 billion surplus, though. Last session the Legislature hardly blinked in approving $45 million for a new National Guard museum in Oklahoma City. And then there is all the money it put into the First Americans Museum, which for all of its trials and tribulations has been a huge success in its first two years.
A lot has happened since Blackburn’s 2009 press conference announcing the museum. The site changed several times, state revenue cratered three years in a row and COVID-19 arrived. Construction costs skyrocketed. A grumbling among legislators that billionaire philanthropist George Kaiser should pay for anything Tulsa wants continued.
Today, a three-dimension piece of art called “Pop Explosion” hangs from the ceiling of the shiny gold building at 422 N. Main St. It is the only exhibit in place, and seems likely to be so for the near future.
Locked away in the back is a treasure trove of Oklahoma popular culture, from a young Chester Gould’s cartoon in his college newspaper to the piano Leon Russell played on his last tour with Elton John.