Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody


Like any city of any size Omaha’s had all manner of presenting arts organizations, some small, some large, some financially well-endowed, some financially-strapped.  There have been organizations with sizable staff and there have been one-man bands.  Some have cast a wide net across the performing arts spectrum and others have been more narrowly focused on a particular niche or segment.  Most presenters have come and gone, never to be seen or heard from again, and a few disappear for a time, only to resurface again.  The following story for Metro Magazine  (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is about today’s major Omaha Player in this arena, Omaha Performing Arts, the organization that both books and maintains the two principal performing arts venues in the city, the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Orpheum Theatre.  Befitting its well-heeled status, the organization is celebrating 10 years in a big way this fall with an October 16 gala and an October 17 Holland Stages festival.  These will be boffo, bring-the-house-down blow-outs that are as much a recognition of the rich programming that enhances the cultural fabric here as they are opportunities for OPA to say thank you to its patrons for the community to return the gratitude for all the great shows that come here on a year-round basis.

Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody

Presenting organization serves as steward of major halls and brings Broadway and other world-class shows to town

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

What a difference a decade makes.

In that relatively short period the Omaha arts and entertainment scene has blown up thanks to a critical mass of new organizations, venues and events. Together with the treasures already here, this cultural synergy’s transformed Omaha from sleepy flyover spot into dynamic destination place.

Leading the new arrivals is Omaha Performing Arts. The organization books world-class artists at the venerable Orpheum Theater and its state-of-the-art companion, the Holland Performing Arts Center. As the steward of these spaces, OPA’s charged with caring for them and filling their halls with high quality events that appeal to all demographics.

Growing the performing arts scene
Great halls are only truly alive when people inhabit them. OPA schedules year-round offerings that keep its spaces hopping to the tune of 3 million-plus patrons since 2005. All those folks, many from out of town, pump $40 million into the local economy each year.

By bringing the best of performing arts to town, OPA adds to the rich stew of the Blue Barn Theatre, the Rose, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha – all of which are thriving.

OPA president Joan Squires says, “Across the board the arts community has elevated attention and we’re seeing a lot of our colleagues doing well at the same time. So there’s been renewed energy downtown and in our community for people wanting to come to performances and there’s more options to select from than ever before. I do believe we contributed to had a lot to do with that sea change.”

Dick Holland, who with his late wife Mary made the lead gift for the Holland, has no doubt of OPA’s impact. “It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”

That’s on top of popular attractions such as the Old Market, College World Series, Omaha Storm Chasers, Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens and Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

 

Celebrating a decade but looking ahead
OPA board chairman John Gottschalk says the public’s reception to the programming has “vastly” exceeded expectations and quelled any doubts Omaha could sustain two major performing arts centers.

This organization that never rests is pausing long enough this fall to commemorate its boffo first decade run. The October 16 Celebrate 10 Gala will feature Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in a Holland spectacular. The October 17 Holland Stages will be a free daylong festival highlighted by diverse performing artists at the Holland.

“We’ve had a lot of milestones in a short period of time,” Squires says, “and we really want to use our anniversary to celebrate what everybody has done for the institution and to start looking forward to the next decade. I think it’s something Omaha as a community should really celebrate. It’s an extraordinary story and opportunity for us.”

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways,” Gottschalk says. “We’re a very healthy arts organization.”

OPA grew out of an initiative Gottschalk, Dick Holland, Walter Scott and others led to renovate the Orpheum and build the Holland. Gottschalk says much effort was made recruiting Squires from the Phoenix Symphony to oversee the Omaha facilities and “she’s done a wonderful job,'” Holland says, “I don’t think we’d have the same success without her. Joan is a perpetual motion machine looking after every single detail you can think of. She’s just plain marvelous.”

Investing in the community
Squires deflects accolades to others.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.

“The people involved in this organization are highly committed and passionate and that starts with our board of directors. John Gottschalk, who’s been our chairman since inception, certainly Dick Holland, and the entire board have been tremendously committed, generous and great stewards. Their leadership has been everything.”

The public’s done its share, too.

“The response by the Omaha community buying tickets and showing up at performances has been incredible. We can continue to get better and better shows because producers look at our ticket sales and results. Broadway shows come in here and report this is one of the best opening night audiences they have.”

She says the fall anniversary events are “our way to say thank you to everybody who’s a part of this,” adding, “The folks that started this institution made an extraordinary investment and you just have to stand back for a moment and say, ‘Bravo.'”

Getting to this point required a remarkable growth spurt for an organization that began with Squires, an assistant production manager, a desk and a computer in 2002. The Orpheum renovation was underway. The Holland was still in the planning stages. Heritage Services raised more than $100 million in private giving to complete the two projects and to help get OPA up and running.

That level of community buy-in is what attracted Squires to take the job and she continues to be impressed by the ongoing support that feeds her organization and to make enhancements at its venues.

“Omaha is known for the deep roots of its philanthropic community. The leadership behind this project was extraordinary. They were invested in its success.”

Then there’s the fact OPA filled a void left by arts impresarios and presenting organizations no longer around.

“There were no other major presenters in town, so I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

She says the support that coalesced around all this “is really about
a commitment to quality of life and making Omaha better for current and future generations.” She adds, “We couldn’t have done this without the partnership of Heritage Services raising the money to get the Holland up and open at the same time we were getting things started here. It’s another key why we were successful from the beginning. That partnership gave us an advantage coming out of the chute.”

Gottschalk says donors made substantial gifts “because they thought it would be good for Omaha and it was, and that’s really been the legacy of the community – we’ve been able to sustain that view – if it’s good for our community, let’s do it.”

 Joan Squires
JoanSquires 175
 Scaling up

The Orpheum renovations have allowed the theater to host the biggest Broadway touring shows (The Lion King, Wicked, Once) whose wildly popular runs make the venue one of America’s best draws. The Holland is home to the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and to a diverse slate of jazz, dance and specials that range from the Omaha Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam to the Hear Nebraska indie music showcase to the Salem Baptist Church holiday concert to Film Streams’ annual Feature event.

The buildings are rich in patron and guest amenities, the latest being the addition of Zinc restaurant just off the Holland courtyard.

Squires spent her first three years putting in place OPA’s infrastructure and branding, including the Ticket Omaha service it operates. She now has a full-time staff of 50 with another 50 part-time staff, plus a volunteer corps of more than 500.

“I’m really delighted with the administrative team here. They are passionate, committed, and talented. They drive so much of this business. We’re lucky to have our volunteer Ambassadors and Presenters. There are hundreds of people involved who are passionate and committed about Omaha Performing Arts.”

With its $18 million operating budget OPA is the state’s largest arts organization. It’s growth, even programmatically, has been gradual.

“You can’t be everything to everybody the day you open the doors,
so you phase it in in stages,” Squires says. “Also by the nature of presenting we’re continuously experimenting in what works or what doesn’t. One of the challenges our very first year is that the Orpheum schedule didn’t allow for much touring Broadway productions. When the symphony moved to the Holland the schedule opened up to allow us to build that Broadway market. That took time and now we’re having tremendous success. This next year is probably going to be our most successful yet. We’re having a wonderful response with subscriptions.”

The mixing and matching OPA does to serve different tastes is always a work in progress but Squires says, “We really have hit our stride in the series we offer. Broadway is one of the biggest draws but we get great responses to our jazz, dance, family and showcase series. New last year was the National Geographic Live Series. The 1200 Club has a following.

“Our mission is to bring in breadth, so we want to really provide a good cross-section to reach lots of segments and to grow audiences.”

The search for new headliners never ends.

“We always have opportunities to bring new shows in but sometimes when they’re touring we may not have availability, so we’re always juggling the schedule. It’s a complex and complicated process to book every year. It’s one of the biggest jigsaw puzzles you can imagine. It takes a lot of coordination to get it all put together.”

Image result for dick Holland omaha, ne
Dick Holland

More than numbers
She says while OPA depends on earned revenue for 75 percent of its budget, ticket sales are not the only barometer for success.

“For some types of performances, a thousand people is just great because that’s what we expected and budgeted.”

The experience people have is more important than anything.

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience,” she says. “You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.

“The arts have that capacity to move people in ways I think nothing else does.”

In addition to the performances it books OPA has a growing education and community engagement mission piece that brings school-age students together with visiting artists and recognizes area youth arts.

“It’s a real important initiative for us,” Squires says. “It’s a chance to reach the community in new ways and have them connect to the arts in ways they may not have a chance to otherwise.”

OPA’s implemented anti-bullying and social justice programs around certain shows and organized master classes with top artists. Its Nebraska High School Theater Awards program is going statewide.

She appreciates how OPA is increasingly seen as an arts leader.

“We’re becoming more and more respected nationally because of the success we’ve had, the quality of the programs and the quality of the buildings. Omaha’s on the map for the kind of work we’re doing.
Artist management companies recognize this is an important tour stop. We’ve been asked to be on some national symposiums and organizations, where we didn’t have that seat at the table in the past.”

Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), says, “Running a large arts program and arts center is extremely challenging. The best nationally recognized arts organizations have the equally daunting tasks of presenting the very best artists available and truly engaging with their respective communities. These endeavors take years of dedicated commitment and experience. Kudos to Omaha Performing Arts and the Holland Performing Arts Center for their well-deserved success.”

A solid foundation and a bright future
Squires says OPA will continue building on what it’s done.

“There’s always more to do and more money to raise. That never stops. We never rest on our laurels. There’s always new opportunities for people to make a difference by giving to our institution. The philanthropic side, we’re always working. Nothing is ever a given.

“For the future we have set up the planned giving Marquee Society. Those gifts will go into a permanent endowment.”

She feels OPA’s proven itself a worthy recipient of planned gifts.

“We had to attract people in large numbers and financially we had to show we’re responsible by meeting our budget numbers every year, which we have done. If people have confidence in the organization then you can start to talk about the future so they can leave legacies that will continue to sustain these programs and facilities. These legacy gifts will ensure the longer term future of this institution.”

“We’ve started down that road and I think it’s going to be well-supported,” Gottschalk says of the endowment.

With a decade under its belt, Squires says OPA is squarely focused now on “where do we go from here, how do we build on our success and how do we continue to evolve and grow to continue to touch the community.”

Gottschalk says, “I think there’s more growth ahead for us in terms of amenities and facilities and programming.”

For event or ticket info, visit http://www.omahaperformingarts.org or http://www.ticketomaha.com.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.”

“…I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience. You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.”
-Joan Squires

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways. We’re a very healthy arts organization.
-John Gottschalk

“It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”
-Dick Holland

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