The news the other day that Bob Dylan’s deep and revealing archives would be cartoned up and moved to Tulsa struck me as rather astounding.
Outside of my long personal interest in this towering and mysterious American troubadour, I’ve grown a bit fond of that eclectic Oklahoma city and this just strengthens that bond.
It makes so much sense. In Tulsa, Dylan’s papers, recordings, visuals and personal effects — more than 6,000 items — and the likelihood of a public exhibit space would add another attraction to a place that, like Kansas City, is building its identity around culture.
The Dylan collection will bolster the allure of the Woody Guthrie Center, an interactive museum devoted to that prolific songwriter and champion of the downtrodden. Guthrie, an Oklahoma native, died way too soon, in 1967, of a horrible neurological disease. In his prodigious wake came Dylan and the rest of those who built the folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s.
The beat goes on. And quite intentionally.
A major lesson for Kansas City is how one large foundation has worked to collaborate with other institutions in creating a refreshing new atmosphere for Oklahoma’s second largest city.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation, a $3.5 billion enterprise, has been an engine for a lot of Tulsa’s recent makeover. Tulsa has long been home to two prominent art museums, the city-owned Gilcrease and the Philbrook, and its music scene has been diverse and lively (Garth Brooks, Leon Russell, Flaming Lips).
But the foundation and its partners kicked things up several notches after it acquired the Guthrie archives and helped get the center built to anchor the newly expanding Brady Arts District, across the railroad tracks from downtown.
Now, the Kaiser foundation has joined with the University of Tulsa and the Helmerich Center for American Research, an arm of the Gilcrease, to acquire, manage and curate the Dylan archives.
“We feel there’s both a tangible benefit to having this collection,” says Stanton Doyle, senior program director of the foundation, “in that scholars will come to Tulsa to research but also intangibles in that it adds heft to Tulsa’s reputation and profile.”
Wholly separate from the music and art initiatives in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District, the Kaiser people a few years ago jump-started an even larger civic project. It’s a 90-acre public park, under construction along the west bank of the Arkansas River. Called A Gathering Place for Tulsa and carrying a price tag of about $250 million, it’s quite likely the biggest park project in the world, Doyle told me. The first phase is scheduled to open next year.
A city embraces its waterfront. How visionary. Perhaps Kansas City could pay attention.
Along the same lines, imagine what could happen here if civic leaders and, say, a large, visionary foundation were to fashion a real plan for cultivating Kansas City’s musical heritage, as Tulsa has begun to do.
Imagine the dots that could be connected and made larger if the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance successfully makes its hoped-for move to a downtown campus, adjacent to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and just a mile from the 18th and Vine Historic District. Imagine if magnetic synergies were to be found in collaborations with the American Jazz Museum, the Mutual Musicians Foundation, UMKC’s Marr Sound Archives, which holds one of the most important collections of jazz history in the world, not to mention the Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey and other organizations.
Wouldn’t that have a lot of Kansas City folks launching into a Tulsa kind of Two-Step?