Oklahoma Contemporary's longest-standing employee deserves all the praise
When we say it takes a village to run Oklahoma Contemporary, what we really mean is it takes Senior Facilities Manager Laura Rice.
“Laura is a pivotal part of our Operations Team,” says Director of Operations Nicole Armitage. “She has the enormous task of keeping our facilities and grounds well maintained and looking like the world-class facility it is. Laura supervises our grounds maintenance, custodial services and security team as well. This facility would not be what it is without Laura Rice. She makes sure that the entire property is pristine on a daily basis. Without her keen eye, this property would not be what it is and receive as many compliments as it does.”
Rice is the arts center’s longest-serving employee — she just celebrated her 20th anniversary — and she’s touched everything from facilities, grounds and security to camps, development and exhibitions.
In addition to her Oklahoma Contemporary work, Laura has donated innumerable amounts of time and energy to the OKC arts community through organizations like Allied Arts, deadCenter, Factory Obscura and several arts-forward districts. She is a member of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce, owns her own rental company and has contributed artwork to the Group Vans Show, Group Skate Deck show, Project 60 and Project 120 Downtown Underground.
We sat down with the City Arts Center-turned-Oklahoma Contemporary legend and chatted about her history, where she finds her joy and her future aspirations for our new home. A blog spotlight isn’t close to the amount of gratitude she deserves, but it’s a stellar start to showcase her devotion, experience and expertise.
From the Fairgrounds to our new home, how would you describe your job?
Well, that’s a lot. (laughs) The basic operations of the building, grounds, security, cleaning — just all the parts and making sure they run together. This building runs on wifi and electricity, and that’s been a very new challenge. But a lot of it is understanding the programming behind everything that goes on: the door system, the (key)cards system, making sure those work, making sure we have everything for classes. I mean the list goes on and on.
I would say the main part of it is making sure that people are safe here. That the building is a safe space to actually work in, fins not flying off, all that jazz. (laughs) We’ve been working on (the construction and move to downtown) for quite some time. Watching the center move down here and be built was monumental. And now that it’s here, it’s like, “Oh, it’s here! I should feel this wonderful relief,” something like I’ve crossed the finish line. But even though (staff have been in the building) two years, it feels like, “Oh my gosh, my work is just starting.” This building is just starting, me figuring out and fine tuning it, you know? I’ve got a couple years under my belt now, but I feel like I’m just starting to get the hang of it! It’s a learning facility — I’ve learned a lot here.
I started at the Fairgrounds in ’98 as a camp counselor. My UCO sculpture professor hired me to paint sculptures — he was the education director here (at the time), and he hired me to do some camp stuff. And then in ’99 AmeriCorps, Oklahoma Children’s Theater
and City Arts Center hired me to run education
and camps, outreach, all of those wonderful things. It went from a lot of working with education, and then eventually the night position (which involved assisting adult students, setting up rooms for tenants and rentals, running the front desk, cleaning up after tenants, etc.) came open, and I ran that for a long time.
It’s been a roller coaster of a ride, but I’ve been in a lot of different positions. I was in accounting, then theater. I ran the mics, set up the mics, I did sound, I set up the films. Well then I also did events — I rented out the (State Fair Park) building for weddings, conferences, meetings. I ran all the tenants and the rentals, then I ran the front desk. Visitor Experience here is a team of 15-20 people. At the Fairgrounds, well, it was just me. It was a totally different beast. … There was a huge support team of 30 or 40 people spread across (all of the different Fairgrounds entities), but here it is different, I actually have my own team! (The Operations department includes full-time staff who handle the facility, retail and rentals/private events. Laura also oversees contractors who handle security, janitorial and grounds keeping.) There, I was just doing so many things, I couldn’t focus. But here, I can focus.
Why have you stayed for 20 years?
You know, I think it had a lot to do with moving around (into different positions) and figuring out so many things in the beginning. Doing outreach at AmeriCorps was so totally different than education, and then some accounting then up to the front desk … they all seemed to be very different things to me. In my head, I feel like, yes, I’m at the same job, but I’ve done so many very different roles here and learned what’s going on.
At first I think it was just heartfelt, but then I very much wanted to stay and keep carrying on the grassroots love and caring about people. … I would say I’ve stayed here for such a long time because it’s been such an ever-changing and fluid environment; making sure that it stays somewhat grounded has been really important.
The staff and the people keep it grounded. When I was in education and when I was doing outreach, when I was physically getting kids and bringing them to do artwork and then them taking it home, it was very rewarding. Very tangible, very kind of “I am making a difference.” And now that I’m running this facility, while I might make a difference every day, it’s a much different air, different tangibility. I don’t see it as much.
But when we do get to experience those events, when I see things like Second Saturday and there’s still free programming and there’s all kinds of kids here … I noticed my friend Owen’s name on the check-in list, his name and his mom’s and his kid’s. Owen, he was just a kid when I was at the Fairgrounds. I hired his mom to teach at camps, and last weekend, seeing her here? With her grandson? She’s taught so many children and seeing her come in with her grandson, who is probably 4, was just everything. It was everything to see him and go, “Oh my god!” It’s why I do it — but for his mother, too. She was so delighted to see the new space, the new wing, the kids’ room. She was like, “Ah, this is what you wanted! It’s finally here, you finally got the tiny chairs and tables!” (laughs) That’s inspiring.
What do you hope to accomplish in our new home?
At first, I was happy to leave the Fairgrounds building behind, but now, I realize it wasn’t much easier to fix and repair than this building. And there was probably a third less problems. Everyone is like “ah, that building was so old!” And like yeah, it was a lot, but not as much as a brand-new building with all of the same problems. It’s massive! (laughs) It’s like a brand new Tesla, and we’re learning how to work on it. It’s a lot of watching!
But I want to make it functional. (laughs) The basics, honestly. Not having every week being a guessing game. I want a better grasp, I want our backup systems installed, the basics! You see these bare walls? (gestures to fourth floor conference room) That’s what I want to change. We need color, we need artwork, in the stairwell — we need it everywhere! We have so much blank canvas here, there is so much potential to this building, so much potential for it to be contemporary art, for every single inch. Make it more livable for people.
From the Fairgrounds to our new grounds, Rice has touched and impacted many people along the way. From organizing much of the move to keeping this new property pristine, we couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) do it without her.
“Working at any job for 20+ years is quite an accomplishment,” Armitage says. “Oklahoma Contemporary is extremely lucky to have a champion of the organization such as Laura. She is well known and liked in our wonderful city, and I am so grateful to be on a team with her!”
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