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Tulsan of the Year: Heather Pingry finds a new home for Tulsa's Mayfest — in the Arts District

  • 2 min to read

Heather Pingry is the executive director of Tulsa International Mayfest. 

“The person who ruined Mayfest.”

Although she laughs at the thought now, 10 years ago Heather Pingry was briefly afraid it was how Tulsa was going to remember her.

“I remember I was like, if we don’t make any money, I won’t get to do this anymore,” she said, recalling her first Mayfest as executive director in 2009, when rain threatened to wash the festival away.

It ended up raining three of the four days, Pingry added.

Thankfully, “we had a literal rainy day fund” that helped soften the financial hit, she said.

A decade later and still at the helm, Pingry, far from ruining it, has Tulsa International Mayfest poised for what she hopes are its best years yet.

And that future will hinge, no doubt, on some tough decisions she helped make this year.

In 2019 for its 47th year, Mayfest was moved from its traditional home, the city’s Central Business District downtown, to the Tulsa Arts District, and changed from a four-day event to three days.

Mayfest organizers, she said, had been mulling the move for a couple of years, but decided to go ahead in January. Upon learning the annual Blue Dome Arts Festival was ending, Mayfest wanted to help fill the gap, Pingry said, and the move would allow it to double its visual arts booths.

Also a factor, she said, were the changes happening in and around its former home, including ongoing construction along Mayfest’s primary venue streets.

After the Mayfest board unanimously approved the proposed move, the plan had to come together quickly.

“Normally for a move like this,” Pingry said, “we’d want to plan it two, three years ahead. But the way it worked out, we had just a few months.”

Looking back now at how everything came together, she said, it’s even easier to see it was “the right thing to do.”

Crowd response was especially affirming.

“We lost Saturday to rain, but on Friday and Sunday it was great,” Pingry said.

She said at the former location, she knew it was going well when she couldn’t maneuver her golf cart down Main Street because the crowds were too heavy.

“This year it was like that in every direction on MLK (in the Arts District), which is two and a half times the width of Main,” Pingry said.

Although clearly for the best, uprooting Mayfest was not an easy decision, she said. Pingry, a Broken Arrow native, recalls coming to her first Mayfests as a teenager, and how the atmosphere downtown, especially at the old Bartlett Square, entranced her.

“You were in the middle of this beautiful place with great architecture and friendly people and great music,” Pingry said.

But if she feels some nostalgic regret, Pingry has found comfort in the arrival of the new Chapman Green Arts series. Introduced this year and managed by Mayfest, it continues to bring crowds into one of the areas formerly home to the festival.

“It’s been a really fun experience,” she said, “and knowing that we still have some kind of program in this area made the festival transition easier.”

One of two full-time staff members backed by a core group of volunteers, Pingry said she still loves the year-round work it takes to make Mayfest happen.

When she used to come as a teen, “I had no idea this was somebody’s job,” she said.

Pingry’s hope, she added, is to reach even more Tulsans, inviting them to “come out, buy your art from an actual artist, eat food made by local people, enjoy the music. Because that’s what keeps it going.”

“There are not a whole lot of big arts festivals our size in communities our size around anymore,” she said. “We are so lucky to have an arts festival like this.”

15 Tulsans who did incredible things in 2019. Read each Tulsan of the Year story. 

Tim Stanley


Twitter: @timstanleyTW

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