I didn’t used to consider myself as an artist. Even though I’ve been writing and dabbling in photography for more than 20 years now, I think of others as creatives and myself as analytical (I started out as a math major after all!). But then I find art in places Oklahoma City, which are brimming with color and driven by creative spark, and realize that these trailblazers and I have something in common: We all create. And by mere definition of the word, I suppose that makes me an artist, too.
And whether I choose to photograph murals and sculptures rather than paint and mold them myself, I’m still a seeker of beauty, which is one of the many reasons I adore OKC and its diversity of offerings. There’s art everywhere you look, from the angular buildings to the many museums and attractions designed to appeal to both visitors and residents.
If you’re heading to Oklahoma City for the first time, you’ll be surprised to find this metropolis—a fusion of Southern, Southwestern and Midwest culture—has a distinct art scene all of its own.
Let’s start with where you should stay. While I have nothing against big chain hotels and stay in plenty of them through my travels, if given the option of a boutique, I’m going to choose it every single time. And 21c is more than a boutique; it’s an actual museum that invites and encourages you to become a part of the art.
My first experience staying at one of the hotel collection’s properties was in Louisville many years ago, and the industrial-style setting punctuated by bold art and those iconic colorful penguins made me an insta-fan. Nashville also got its own iteration last year, but neither of those can compare to the 21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City. From the moment we stepped foot inside the 21c, I knew it was going to rank up there as one of my favorite hotels visited ever.
To start, it’s located in an old Ford Motor Company assembly plant. One thing you need to know about the founders of 21c is that they take old spaces and fit their hotel to match the building and its history; even the permanent installations like the Mechanical Magic and the River of Time, designed to channel a conveyor belt, follow suit.
Fittingly, the hotel opened on the 100th anniversary of the building two years back. Whereas they could have easily chopped up the 135 rooms and added double the accommodations, the hotel designers instead opted to use the lofty ceilings and wide-open spaces to create a dreamy stay for every single guest, no matter what level of room you book. There are rooms as low as $183, too—or $95, if you work for the federal government!—which is a steal for this caliber of property and this much space (deluxe rooms range from 400 to 600 square feet, while suites are anywhere from 655 to 1505 square feet).
It’s fitting that the 21c Museum Hotel OKC is located in the Film Row district, which was once a distribution center for major Hollywood studios (Paramount Pictures, MGM), as it shares that flair for the dramatic. The owners rotate works from their own permanent art collection into their various hotels, swapping out the exhibits every eight to 12 months. During our stay, Pop Stars! was on display, with depictions of many of my favorite icons like Oprah, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears lighting up the 14,000 square feet of exhibition space. This exhibit will live at the Oklahoma hotel through next February.
There’s also a hotel restaurant and lounge, Mary Eddy’s, that channels this unique, creative vibe with dishes such as a watermelon and popcorn creation with avocado, herb puree, feta and sprinkled with tasso spice, or an avocado toast tower comprising tomato, mizuna, pickled shallots, buttermilk vinaigrette and pepita. We ate both dinner and brunch at Mary Eddy’s, and it’s not your average hotel restaurant, that’s for sure!
Summer months bring a number of fun, often free, events at the hotel, and like the museum itself, they’re open to the public. We were there for the summer film series, held on Friday, and the place was swarming with locals. For those who want to do a deep dive into the art collection itself, there are also free docent tours every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year.
If you’re looking for something a bit more traditional by way of a hotel, on our first visit to OKC last year we stayed at the historic, Art Deco-style Colcord Hotel downtown, which is equally swoon-worthy and bears the distinction of being the first skyscraper in Oklahoma City.
We spent our first two visits in Oklahoma City photographing more than 30 murals, many of which we found tucked away beneath underpasses and down hidden alleys out of plain sight while wandering aimlessly, and there are still plenty we didn’t get. I love that in a city right smack in Middle America has such a devotion to the arts that neighborhoods like the Plaza District have walls that rotate with the seasons, meaning you’ll always find something new.
From the moment I walked through the door of the Oklahoma Museum of Art and saw a massive 55-foot-tall Chihuly sculpture fashioned from 2,400 pieces of glass stretching from the floor to the ceiling, I knew this place was my style. On our first visit, we oohed and aahed over the Dale Chihuly: Magic & Light exhibit in the main gallery—the OKCMOA boasts one of the largest Chihuly collections in the world—while on our return last month, Isabelle de Borchgrave’s Fashioning Art from Paper exhibit was the big draw for us. No matter what’s traveling through the museum, you’d be wise to pop in for an hour and peruse the 11,000 square feet of modern art.
I’ll admit when I first heard about the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, I assumed it was going to be, well … not my speed. I’ve never seen an old-fashioned Western (guilty!), and not growing up in that part of the country, my art tastes lean more contemporary. I quickly realized why you should go into every experience with no preconceived notions as this massive sprawl of a museum whose collection spans 30,000 items is riveting and has something for everyone (including a recreation of an old Western town for the kiddos). If you only have one day in Oklahoma City, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum should get a coveted spot on your itinerary.
Of course, OKC has plenty of other noteworthy museums, in particular the incredibly poignant Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum at the site of the former Federal Building where the 1995 bombing took place. The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum is also going to be a huge deal when it opens in 2021.
Devon Energy Center dominates the skyline of OKC like a shard of cobalt, reflecting the blue-bird skies and puffy clouds whipping in the wind over the city with a clarity that is stunning to the eye. The oil and gas company anchors the legacy of the early 20th century when the black gold was discovered across the footprint of the state capitol and extraction businesses were a dime a dozen. The architectural aesthetic is grand, and the company made sure to use an interesting mix of sustainable wood, modern energy efficiencies and exotic stones throughout to achieve LEED-NC status. The main floor is open to the public—and worthy of a stop because the acoustics in a few particular spots are akin to sound magic, with effortless renderings of whispers reflecting back from the 13-story rotunda. For a ride to the top, either visit the Vast OKC restaurant or take one of their guided tours.
The view from 49 stories up peers down upon Myriad Gardens, Cox Center, Bricktown and the land being revitalized into the new MAPS 3 Downtown Convention Center and adjacent Scissortail Park, which will almost immediately connect to the over 50 miles of city-wide loops and paved running and bicycling trails. The MAPS program is one of the most fascinatingly successful, community-driven improvement projects we’ve ever seen. If you’re a nerd on smart urban development (and SVV is just that), you can read more about it there.
Right across the street from Devon in the heart of downtown, the 15-acre Myriad Botanical Gardens is a true oasis with gardens, a playground, off-leash dog park, splash fountains, walking paths, restaurant with counter service and more. But the focal point is the Crystal Bridge conservatory, which houses waterfalls, a skybridge and 750 species of plants.
If you’re looking to see some of the most stunning homes in the city, hop in a car or a Lyft and head due north from downtown into Heritage Hills, the city’s first Historic Preservation district and inevitably where SVV and I would manage to find the good bones of a home to renovate were we ever to relocate to Oklahoma City (I’m not ruling anything out at this point). As its name implies, Paseo Arts District also has a certain artistry to its homes, galleries and businesses thanks to its Spanish revival architecture.
What I’m saying is this: There’s no shortage of pretty things to look at in Oklahoma City; it’s a city of shapes, color and surprises. Bonus points for creating an environmentally-conscious, smart, activity-focused and mobility-driven city, to boot.
Need more travel tips to OKC? Start here:
- The Best Murals in Oklahoma City
- Urban Whitewater Rafting in Oklahoma City
- 11 Reasons We’re Obsessed with OKC
This post is part of a long-term content project with Visit OKC. All opinions are my own.