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North Omaha Synergy Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City

June 26, 2012 19 comments

There’s a magazine published in Omaha called Revive!  It’s put out by a couple, Willie and Yolanda Barney, as a very intentional positive framing of the best of what is now and what is to come in North Omaha, by which they and most folks here mean northeast Omaha, which is the traditional heart of the city’s African-American community.  That heart has been hurting for decades due to disinvestment and crushing poverty and it’s only in the last few years and looking forward now that there’s come to be a concerted focus on finally revitalizing that area in a profound way.  Progress is being made in some sectors but there’s a long way to go yet before a fundamental, sweeping change comes to fruition and all boats are lifted with the tide.  The following story is about the stirrings of change in a historic hub, North 24th Street, that long ago fell on hard times and is looked at today as a cornerstone for the planned rebirth.  An arts-culture district is to arise in what was once the epicenter of a vibrant live music and entertainment scene with all the trimmings – dance halls, clubs, restaurants, stores, movie theaters, you name it.  It isn’t much to look at or partake in yet, but it could very well be in short order.  The potential is there.  Some of the pieces are already in place.  More are on the way.  It’s my hope that in a decade’s time the rebirth will no longer be a fond desire or enticing plan but a reality.  My story will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 This is what the district is imagined to look like in a few years
This is what much of the district looks like now

 

 

North Omaha Synergy Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The days when North 24th Street jumped with folks out on the town, strolling the main drag, hitting one live music spot after another, are decades past.

Aside from biennial homecoming activities, North 24th is a drive-through artery on the way to somewhere else. Few souls trod its walkways. If people do stop it’s for Sunday sanctification, a haircut, a fill-up or some social service business.

There’s little else to see or do. Food options are mostly confined to the fast variety and dingy bars pass for nightclubs. Vacant tracts of land abound.

But a welling synergy of activity promises to once again bring people in numbers to the “Deuce-Four” for entertainment. It’s the fledgling start of the arts-culture district designated in the city-approved North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan.

A couple pieces are in place. One is under construction. Others are on the drawing boards. The revival isn’t in full swing yet, but there’s enough happening to give a glimpse of what could be.

The existing pivot points are the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Union for Contemporary Art and Great Plains Black History Museum. An emerging player is the as yet unnamed fulfillment of the two-year long Theaster Gates Town Hall Project in the former Carver Savings & Loan Association building.

John Beasley is eying property in the area for a new theater. Other envisioned digs include a movie theater, large music venues and artist live-work spaces.

Historic anchors with strong community orientation have their own roles to play. The Omaha Star newspaper is a conduit for community happenings. The Omaha Economic Development Corporation and the Empowerment Network, housed in the Jewell Building where the Dreamland Ballroom held sway, are driving redevelopment efforts and sponsoring events.

Seasonal attractions are part of the scene, too. The North Omaha Summer Arts Festival is in year two, though most of its events happen on North 30th. The expanded Juneteenth celebration centered last month’s activities on 24th, where the Dreamland Plaza hosted outdoor concerts. Last year’s Christmas in the Village drew hundreds to venues up and down the street.

The LJAC at 2510 No. 24th is by far the area’s most established attraction. The gallery, live music and rental spot has come into its own after a rough patch. Executive director Tim Clark sees the makings of a destination district about him. “The stars are aligning with all that’s going on with the Union, the Bemis, the black museum and the Loves Center. I think people are ready for it.”

Loves Jazz & Arts Center

Tim Clark

 

 

The center, whose membership has risen from 8 to 300-plus in two years under Clark, is seeing more visitors to national traveling exhibits, including the current Selma to Montgomery. Special programs, from a gospel play-soul food buffet to a fashion show, draw well. Events like a recent Family Day and Arts-Culture Expo found new audiences. Its Jazz After Five series owns a loyal following.

The idea is that as more stay-and-play venues open around the center and offer  activities people will make a night of it by sampling the attractions, thereby dropping more traffic and dollars into a community starved for commerce.

“We’re trudging along and as we ramp up hopefully it’ll catch on,” says operations director Janet Ashley. “We’re all in this together, we’re very supportive of each other.”

Returning the area to a walking neighborhood is partly about overcoming perceptions, say Ashley and Clark, that the area is unsafe, which they insist it’s not.

“Being able to walk from one location to another is hugely important to the sense of vitality of the neighborhood.,” says Hesse McGraw, chief curator of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, a partner in the Gates project.  “The idea that you could come to a Jazz After Five at Loves Jazz and then walk to a opening at the Carver and then walk to an open studio or something at the Union, that’s a pretty dynamic thing.”

As events multiply and more patrons discover the area’s diamonds in the rough, not unlike North Downtown a few years ago or the Old Market a few decades ago, a critical mass of sit-down restaurants and retail outlets may join the party.

Around the corner from Loves Jazz a combined storefront eatery and art space is taking shape. Chicago-based artist and planner Theaster Gates, along with Rebuild Foundation of St. Louis, Mo, and the Bemis, is bringing new life to adjoining sites at 2416-18 Lake St. to house a Big Mama’s sandwich shop, three artist studios and a gallery.

For Patricia Barron, whose Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering on No. 45th St. is one of northeast Omaha’s few destination spots, contributing to any revival is personal. Her father Elmer “Basie” Givens was a band leader when 24th jammed day and night with music and action.

“I can remember when 24th St. was just flowing with activity and so I’d like to see that restored, the arts, the music, theaters, stores, because this is my birth city and I love Omaha. We’re very excited. It’s been dormant for too long.”

Carver Building (right) and adjoining building to house the Theaster Gates project with a sandwich shop, artist studios and gallery
Hesse McGraw
Theaster Gates

 

 

McGraw says the art side of the site aims to be a launching pad for North O artists of color and a catalyst for more activity. He describes “an emerging excitement about a set of possibilities burgeoning in the neighborhood,” adding, “I think there’s an interest from the city’s perspective in imagining what could happen on that block west of Loves Jazz, where the city owns a lot of property.”

He says the area’s potential as a lively arts haven could be enhanced by a North Omaha Arts Alliance. Deborah Teamer Bunting, Heritage Arts Manager with the Nebraska Arts Council, is working with the Empowerment Network on formalizing the alliance by year’s end. She says shared resources could help joint funding and marketing efforts.

Clark, who’s hosting informal meetings with his arts neighbors, also sees the benefits of “this coalition” working together moving forward.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the stirrings of a vibrant arts community,” says McGraw.

“I think the synergies are there and all these activities would be stronger in concert with one another.”

Bunting says it’s already “one of Omaha’s best kept secrets” and “its own unique community building on some of the history of North Omaha.”

A block south The Union is poised to be a destination. It hosts artist-in-residence studios and community projects, such as the North Omaha Tool Library formed by Kjell Peterson, at its 2417 Burdette St. site.

It seeks funds for the adaptive reuse of the adjacent Fair Deal Cafe as a gallery, lecture space and art library. The Fair Deal was THE Omaha soul food joint. So much social-political discussion happened there it was called the “black city hall.”

 

 

Brigitte McQueen leading her volunteer charges at the Fair Deal

 

 

“We’re hyperaware of the fact that building has so much significance to this community and anything we do over there will be so respectful of that,” says Union founder-executive director McQueen. “I’m hoping people will be excited to see it used again and returned to a state of glory.”

This summer The Union is planting communal gardens and erecting an elaborate gazebo, all part of finishing out its multiuse campus.

“There will be seating, no gates, no fences, no nothing. It really is meant to be of the community,” McQueen says of the gardens-gazebo. “It’s creating an oasis that will always keep on the property and not build over that land.”

Urban agriculture is one of The Union’s many missions..”If we’re sustaining people visually and emotionally with the arts,” she says, “then we also need to be giving them an opportunity to grow food that sustains them in a better way.”

 

 

The Union for Contemporary Art

 

 

McQueen saw the area’s potential synergy May 31-June 1. That’s when a Great Plains Theater Conference play staged in the Union parking lot, with the Burdette building’s west wall as painted backdrop, drew hundreds, including area residents and workers. The sounds of traffic whooshing by and kids playing hoops across the street added “perfect” ambience to the urban-set play The Crowd Youre in With.

The Union and GPTC plan more collaborations.

Conference producing artistic director Kevin Lawler says, “The arts are one of the most live giving, healing, growth enhancing, healthy activities for a community, and this is a part of the city that has not had enough energy from the arts. So I want to work with groups like the Union to help to change that.” A youth theater program is in the works.

Additionally, the Union is developing an art-based after school program and a North Omaha murals project involving area youth.

“I think once kids and their parents start coming to the building that will help us get established,” says McQueen.

As more has been happening there, she says, the curiosity factor already has neighbors, including kids playing hoops at the Bryant Center courts, “coming over and asking questions…oh, so many questions,” says McQueen. “They’re excited to hear we’re doing art stuff over here.”

The Bryant Center Association operates organized leagues at its open basketball courts as well as programs for seniors and youths at neighboring St. Benedict the Moor Church. Funds are sought for a proposed anger management and life skills program. The focus is on giving kids positive, structured diversions along with mentoring, tutoring and counseling.

 

 

Bryant Center courts

 

 

Jean Cain, who helps runs things at the Bryant, has noted the Union’s activities and sees potential collaboration with McQueen’s programs.

“I’m very grateful for her, I really and truly am. I do want to make that acquaintance because I do think there’s a partnership or a marriage that could be an ongoing thing.”

The Union is new enough and the Carver opening far enough away that even most Bryant volunteers and area residents don’t know about the organizations yet. That will take time. The Theaster Gates site will feature a glass front entrance and a Big Mama’s outlet to make a transparent and enticing “invitation” for the community to come check it out, says McGraw, He says it’s all part of a “radical hospitality that makes spaces welcoming by reaching out in a charismatic and gregarious way. It’s this idea of having a thrown open front door, a place where there’s no expectations about who belongs there – there’s too few places like that.”

The black museum has a different challenge. It’s a well-known quantity that goes back to the mid-1970s but until monies are found to renovate its condemned home at 2213 Lake St. and/or to build a new one, it operates as a mobile presenting organization. It recently brought three Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibits to the metro, including two at Conestoga Magnet School not far from the 24th hub.

A mile or so southwest of the hub the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation has recently staked itself as an anchor with year-round programming at its new center.

Tim Clark and Brigitte McQueen say organizations like theirs are seeds that can grow roots that blossom into perennial attractions. But for that capacity building to take place resources are needed for more professional staff, among other things.

For all these disparate parts to form an effective, concerted North O mosaic or cohort that engages the general public, Clark says they must find sustainable support. He suggests a much larger pool of money than is presently available through funding mechanisms like the North Omaha Cultural Arts Committee is necessary to support the arts-culture district’s growth.

The catalyst effect Gates hopes to have with his project, which the Bemis is providing full financial support to for three years, can work the other way, too.

“There are new initiatives that are about to get off the ground in North Omaha that are really going to begin to change the game,” says McGraw, “and I think Theaster and Rebuild Foundation have a real interest in being part of those efforts. I think there are extremely exciting things on the horizon.”

Art as Revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art Reimagines What’s Possible in North Omaha

October 25, 2011 12 comments

Change is coming to North Omaha and one of the change agents is Brigitte McQueen, one of those transplants to this place who brings a new energy and perspective that can help the community move in positive new directions. She’s just begun her work there with her fledgling Union for Contemporary Art but my bet is that she and her organization will wind up being long-term playera and change agents who make a difference.

 

Brigitte McQueen

Art as Revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art Reimagines What’s Possible in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Brigitte McQueen is hell-bent on revolution.

The entrepreneurial arts maven first made a splash with Pulp in Benson. Then she revived the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. Now she’s about to shake up North Omaha via The Union for Contemporary Art, which she could have located anywhere.

She chose North Omaha.

“It’s one of the only communities in Omaha that does not have a dedicated, consistent art presence, and it shows in the neighborhood. There’s very little public art, the kids are not getting it in their after school programs, it’s not in the schools,” she says. “Kids there can go for weeks without seeing a piece of art or anything beautiful.”

The Union is leasing two eyesore buildings on a mostly empty plot between Patrick Ave. and Burdette St., and 24th and 25th Sts. One structure housed the landmark Fair Deal Cafe, where Charles Hall served soul food and welcomed community activists. The other is the former St. Martin de Porres food pantry.

Former St. Martin de Porres Center is now home to the Union for Contemporary Art

 

 

A future capital campaign will attempt to raise the $400,000 to $500,000 she estimates renovations and repairs will cost. The cafe will be gutted, save for the tin ceiling, overhead fans, booths and lunch counter, and converted into a gallery. The bunker-like pantry will be opened up with more windows and reconfigured for artist studios, a classroom, a commons area and offices. Both buildings will be refaced. The design work is being donated by Leo A Daly, Alley Poyner Macchietto and BVH.

The Union will be home to artist residency and youth education programs. Visiting artists in the Studio Fellowship will receive a stipend for supplies and access to professional development and critique. At the end of their four to six-months stay participants will get an exhibition. During their immersion experience McQueen says artists “will have to be doing community service the entire time, whether teaching a class or curating a show or working with kids. They’ll be a part of the community and leave something tangible behind. It’s all about engaging the community in a constant dialogue about the arts.” McQueen says she has several artists lined up to teach upcoming youth art classes.

Board president Watie White, an Omaha artist, says, “The Union is working off the model of not-for-profit street-level arts activist organizations” that do community-based projects aimed at addressing real issues and transforming lives and neighborhoods. In return for the opportunities given, he says, the expectation is for “the creative generation we foster to pay it forward to the community they come from.”

Former Fair Deal Cafe is slated to be the Union for Contemporary Art exhibition gallery

 

 

The Stockyard Institute in Chicago will be sending Windy City artists here and The Union will reciprocate with Omaha artists there.

“Ideally I would like to have relationships like that built with organizations all across the country so that we’re constantly sending people out but having people come in,” says McQueen.

Her “arts campus” is to include finished green space. Perhaps a sculpture garden. In three to five years she’d like to erect a new building housing artist live-work spaces and retail art bays.

As a North O resident McQueen is making a statement that contemporary art shouldn’t bypass a community based on perceptions and is creating a reason for greater Omaha to visit the area.

“Omaha is my adopted city and ever since I’ve been here I’ve been really aware of the segregation that exists. You can see the lines. It’s horrible we’ve divided ourselves up that strongly. I want Omaha to be a truly open city.

“Why can’t we build something that would provide all of this support to Omaha’s arts community and put it in a neighborhood that so desperately needs to have that influx of people? It adds a level of vibrancy to this community.”

 

 

 

 

It’s about “building bridges and changing the way we think about Omaha and the lines we have made,” she says. “Nothing’s going to change until we start doing that and bringing people into the community. If I can open a small door and people from outside come to see stellar contemporary exhibitions, then maybe that’s how that migration north starts to happen.”

She says she’s doing something “dynamically different than what has been done before” to prove more than just social services or Afro-centric art-culture can flourish there.

After initial resistance she’s “overwhelmed” by the support The Union’s received from such stakeholders as the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Empowerment Network and the City of Omaha.

The Union is slated as the front door to a revitalized North 24′s mixed use arts- commercial-residential district.

“I think it makes perfect sense to have this place where creativity is celebrated as the entrance way and gateway,” she says.

The Union’s received grants from the Weitz Family Foundation and the Omaha Venture Group and will apply for funds to help underwrite programs and building makeovers.

Collaboration will be key. Last summer the Union partnered with Catholic Charities of Omaha on a kids art program at the Christ Child Center. It joined the Bellows Studio in bringing artist Lavie Raven here. Through Dec. 11 Birdhouse Interior Design and Birdhouse Collective is staging a Home exhibition at the Bancroft Street Market as a Union fundraiser. Early next year Union is collaborating with Peerless Gallery and Worksite on an art-in.

Until its own buildings are completely renovated some Union programming will occur off-site.

McQueen’s convinced the arts can make a difference in spurring North O’s renaissance.

“I want to make an impact. I want to change lives. It’s all about creating this cyclical process where The Union is supporting the arts and artists, the artists are encouraged to support the community and then hopefully the community feels a stronger connection and therefore wants to be more supportive of the arts.”

Up to six artists will begin using the former St. Martin de Porres space in January. A January community clean-up to get the building ready will be announced soon. Applications for the Studio Fellowship slots will be taken starting Dec. 16. Artists working in any contemporary art form are eligible to apply.

For application details and to follow Union developments visit http://www.u-ca.org.

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