It was a lobby, a tiny room crammed between studio spaces in the Paseo Arts District. Late Oklahoma City painter Claude Anderson worked on one side, filling canvases with bold oil portraits. Anderson's experience with commercial art was instrumental in helping his playwright friend with an ambitious idea.
Frank Parman, a Cordell native and University of Oklahoma dropout who'd returned to the metro after fleeing to New York's art scene, worked in a room across the hall from Anderson, who died in 2000. Parman, now in his early 70s, said he then spent what little money he had for the equipment necessary to eke out a living as a typesetter.
Anderson provided cover art for poetry books and coached Parman on culling commercial work, which included typesetting early issues of Oklahoma Gazette. Anderson also helped his friend create and lay out newsletters and mass mailings "? a determinant, grassroots campaign Parman said helped forge the foundation of IAO, one of the metro's most successful independent arts organizations.
These days, the group celebrates capacity crowds at full-scale exhibits, and the organization's gallery in Automobile Alley has become a go-to venue for visual works and experimental performances from local artists.
Founded in 1979 by Parman and writers W.K. Stratton and Robert V. "Skip" Largent, IAO has inhabited more than a half-dozen city gallery spaces since its first Paseo headquarters, said Parman and executive director Jeff Stokes. This week the organization leaves its most recent space at 811 N. Broadway to relocate to a freshly renovated movie-industry building at 706 W. Sheridan, at the center of an area known as Film Row.
Perpetually a tenant leasing at the mercy of private funding and discounted rent from supportive landlords, Stokes and IAO's members hope the one-time movie house will end up its permanent public theater. The organization will debut the new gallery and celebrate its 30th birthday with an 8 p.m. Saturday mixed-media art show, concert and party. El Paso Hot Button, 13 Seeds and DJ Ed Crunk will perform, and the gallery will host several exhibitions from early organizers and longtime members.
With its full exhibition calendar and popular evening events, IAO was a perfect fit for Automobile Alley, a district the organization helped solidify as a destination for businesses and locals in need of nearby nightlife. When IAO arrived there in 2001, Stokes said many of the buildings north and south of Broadway were empty and rundown. The area now hosts trendy bars, restaurants and shops, and has become a sought-after spot for local businesses. But while IAO proved a sound investment for the area, the group's cultural currency ended up selling the square-footage from underneath it.
IAO leased its Broadway space from John M. "Chip" Fudge, a local real estate developer and president of Claims Management Resources. Fudge had been leasing the building to the group at a discounted rate, but said the economics became impossible to ignore.
"When IAO first moved in, a third of all those buildings were boarded up," he said. "Now things (in Automobile Alley) have peaked, and we're in a market that will bear three to four times what I was charging them. I was presented an offer to sell the building and that hastened the move."
Fudge sold the building in May to Meg Salyer, Oklahoma City Ward Six councilwoman, for $800,000, property records show. Salyer, also president of Accel Financial Staffing, said her company is leaving its office at 722 N. Broadway and relocating to the former gallery space.
When Fudge first approached IAO about moving more than a year ago, Stokes said the organization fielded a handful of relocation options, but an early offer from its longtime landlord was its best opportunity. Fudge owns many of the buildings in Film Row and has been largely responsible for the area's rehab and redevelopment. He again gave IAO reduced rent, offered to renovate the new gallery space and agreed that when the organization's four- to five-year lease ends, it can buy the refurbished building at cost.
Combining a pair of buildings at 706 and 708 W. Sheridan, the new space isn't much larger than the Broadway location, square footage-wise, but the Film Row gallery is substantially more useable, Stokes said. The rear portion of the old gallery "? a glorified utility room and loading dock "? ended up hosting many of IAO's exhibits, largely its "messy" installations, Stokes said. With its floor-to-ceiling, garage-style doors, the back of the new building will serve a similar function, but with a more polished, streamlined aesthetic and air conditioning, unlike the back room at the Broadway location.
The front portion of the new gallery is wider and more open. Renovations are subtle and contemporary with a functional, lightly industrial look. Bare concrete floors and exposed ceiling beams, ducting and electrical conduit contrast with gleaming white walls and a large, textured aluminum reception desk designed by sculptor Stan Carroll, who won the commission in a design contest.
The arts organization's relocation plans were put into motion just before the full force of the economic recession was realized, Stokes said, expressing concern about both the timing of the move and the notion of leaving an established, thriving downtown district to one still in the planning stages.
Stokes said IAO's members are excited at the idea of helping Film Row become an arts and cultural destination "? a sentiment echoed by Fudge, who readily admits his financial interest in the gallery's previous successes and its potential.
"The greatest thing about having IAO on Broadway was that for the first time, we had a street presence in the evening and the added buzz and excitement of having a highly respected art gallery in the area," he said. "Quite frankly, that's what I'm hoping for in the film exchange district."
IAO today is significantly different than the concept its writer founders conceived 30 years ago, but had the organization remained true to its original vision, Parman agreed it might never have survived.
The founders and first organizers "? Parman, particularly "? prioritized IAO's early private/public partnerships and government funding. Meetings and member discussions in the 1980s often centered around the idea that IAO might one day adopt a guild-like construct that would offer Oklahoma artists benefits like health insurance. IAO tried, but "never found a way to do the insurance thing," Parman said, and the organization moved ahead with exhibition plans and more events-oriented programming.
Similarly, IAO's funding mechanism has evolved dramatically over the decades and is now financed solely on private and corporate donations, grants and revenue generated from art sales, Stokes said. IAO no longer receives government funding and hasn't since 2002, when after two decades of financial support, the Oklahoma Arts Council denied funding any of the group's projects that year. The cut amounted to roughly 25 percent of IAO's budget at the time.
IAO's leaders suspected then that the cut stemmed from concern over the "Biting the Apple" erotic art show "? a sexually provocative and risqu