TULSA, Okla. — “All I can say is that I had no idea. I really had no idea, as a full-time employee of ahha, when we were told that, we would be closing tomorrow. Whatever happened, I am not privy to. It would be nice to know. I mean, for future endeavors it would be nice to know what went wrong,” said Mery McNett, former manager of public programs for Ahha. “It is a situation that honestly just didn’t need to happen the way it did. And hopefully, we can learn from that so it won’t happen like that again or happen at all.”
On Nov. 3, ahha employees were informed that the downtown interactive, creative art gallery would suddenly be closed indefinitely. A social media announcement was posted on Nov. 4th announcing the news to the general public.
McNett is a multimedia artist who focuses on painting and installation art sculpture and has been involved with the Tulsa art community for about 13 years. She worked for Living Arts before she started at ahha in downtown Tulsa over four years ago.
“Ahha meant community. I met some of the best people through ahha. We had a print-making space. We had a dark room where people could develop their photographs. We had a media lab where people can print out their photographs. We had equipment people could rent. We had a wood shop that was huge and wonderful. They had a gallery space where they showed artwork. I showed my work up on the third floor,” said McNett. “You know, it is difficult to make a living as an artist sometimes, but it was a safe space where you could go and all the creatives would convene. So you would meet people, you would make connections. It was really beautiful in that way. It was a very interactive space,” said McNett.
Jamie Peirson is a Tulsa artist who had a studio in ahha, and who also helped with programming says that ahha had a profound influence on her growth as an artist.
“Having a space that you can go to that is just available and that is open late and open on weekends, is just something that’s very accessible. I was very lucky to have had that space for three-plus years,” said Peirson. “There is nowhere else in town now that is providing those kinds of resources for artists.”
When McNett was told that her work at ahha would be abruptly ending, her “first reaction was to go outside and scream. What are we going to do? There are so many programs. There are so many people that come to this space.”
McNett describes that moment as absolute, “devastation. It was that you were mostly losing a family. It’s very emotional. It was my whole heart. I put everything into that space.”
She had to call and inform several part-time employees that ahha’s doors would be closing immediately.
Peirson said that hearing the news about ahha on Nov. 3 felt like, “the floor pulled out from under me. I guess really the right way to put it was, losing my foundation, was what it felt like. No one knew this was going to come down the way it did and everyone was scrambling to know what to do, staff and artists.”
The exact number of artists and employees impacted by ahha’s closure is unknown. Peirson estimates, “close to 200 as far as people directly affected by a loss of dedicated studio space or, contractual paychecks through occasional gigs.”
McNett believes that the impact goes beyond the artists connected to ahha.
“There has to be thousands. Not just artists, but the people that came through from the community. And patrons of the arts,” said McNett.
Peirson and McNett also state that while artists have been affected financially by the art space’s closure, there has also been incredible local support within the artist community since Nov. 3, 2022.
One artist opened up her home to some of the art instructors so they could continue teaching their students. An art market was also held for artists impacted by Ahha’s sudden closing to be able to sell their work.
Stuart McDaniel is the head of GuRuStu Communities, a property management company. His office is located in downtown Tulsa.
McDaniel says he recognizes the depravation the closure has cost the community and says that “ahha’s closing is a huge loss to downtown Tulsa. Local artists are the heart and soul of a city.”
“I know that the arts community is very resilient. Hopefully, we can build it back up again,” said McNett.
Peirson agrees, “I know we were really lucky to have this. It’s something that can and needs to happen again. I think maybe we didn’t realize how good we had it with ahha, till it was gone. And so now people are very aware of what we’ve lost and are really energized to make it happen again. It’s not something that every artist is going know throughout the history of art, and to be able to have an opportunity like a space in ahha.”
McNett and Peirson know that ultimately financial backing is a necessary component of reviving a flourishing and abundant artistic venue in the community.
There are still a lot of questions about why ahha closed unexpectedly.
“I don’t know what that was. I don’t know what happened, but I do know that everyone who was there opening the doors and interacting with the public, was fully committed and fully engaged in the work of creating an arts community in Tulsa,” said Peirson.
The artist’s space now sits vacant across the street from the Center of the Universe.
“The building is really a gateway into the Arts District. It’s by everything that’s there. So it needs to be utilized in that same way to make that district really successful. I really hope that the building is utilized for the arts. People dedicate their lives to spreading creativity and art because it is vital. I think that whatever happens in the future, it needs to be put in the hands of artists for artists, by artists,” said McNett. “It’s important as a beacon for the arts and the community and creativity. I know we can build something new and effective for the community. And that’s what I’m hopeful for, that there will be something like that again.”
There are possibilities on the horizon.
“GuRuStu Communities is excited to collaborate with a team of creatives to identify a space that will suit the needs of the community and be financially sustainable moving forward,” said McDaniel.
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