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Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement


Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement
©by Leo Adam Biga

Brigitte McQueen Shew so believes the arts can promote social justice she founded and directs The Union for Contemporary Art as a resource supporting artists in their practice and as a change agent engaging underserved North Omaha. Last year, The Union moved from cramped 2417 Burdette Street quarters in northeast Omaha to much larger new quarters at the nearby renovated Blue Lion Center.

Once that occurred, the organization’s already full program slate increased, as didl the number of people it serves.

Union artist studio and coop spaces, exhibits, youth activities, mural projects, community garden, tool lending library and neighborhood potlucks expanded with the fall move to the Blue Lion and courtyard at 24th and Lake. With the move, The Union is now an anchor at the intersection of a once thriving black business corridor and live music scene finally emerging as a new arts and culture district.

Going from 3,000 to 16,000 square feet has enlarged adult and youth spaces and thus allowed greater capacity and participation. There are dedicated facilities for graphic art, printmaking, ceramics, fiber arts, woodworking, cooking. Instead of leasing a storefront for its Wanda Ewing Gallery, the organization has a permanent gallery for curated shows in its new home. A mixed use space doubles as a black box theater hosting performances by Union’s newly formed Performing Arts Collective. Under the direction of Denise Chapman, the Collective stages African-American theater, dance, spoken word and music events.

The two-story, brick. century-old Blue Lion housed many enterprises, including McGill’s Blue Room, before going empty in recent years. Its new life is made possible by the Sherwood Foundation, whose purchase and renovation was expressly for the Union. McQueen Shew coveted the building as her organizatIon’s home. “It perfectly fit us,” she says.

Seizing the moment
“The Union has been a key player in the revitalization of the Blue Lion,” says former board member Julia Parker, Omaha Small Business Network (OSBN) executive director. “This is a culturally significant building known as a gathering place in North Omaha and the home of small business and job creation. The reopening of the Blue Lion is yet another indicator North 24th Street is being reactivated as an arts, culture and small business district.”

That district already includes Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Carver Bank. It also encompasses the Omaha Star, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, OSBN and the former homes of the Great Plains Black History Museum and the Dreamland Ballroom. The recently opened Fair Deal Village Marketplace features cargo container spaces for micro entrepreneurs and artists.

All of this is in addition to major construction projects on North 30th Street, including Highlander Village, three new Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus buildings and a new mixed-use of the former Mr. C’s site. Together with new housing developments, the Nelson Mandela school, the North Star Foundation campus, No More Empty Pots, the 40th Street Theatre, North O’s long dreamed of revitalization is taking shape.

“It’s our moment,” McQueen Shew says. “More money is coming into the community than has happened in years. I think it’s an amazing thing that’s happening and if you look at 24th and Lake, it’s the hub that connects everything together. This is our moment and if we don’t seize it then it just quiets down again. This is the time. That’s why it’s so important to me and why I push so hard.”

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows, whose organization is developing Highlander, says, “There’s this culmination of a lot of things happening at once and I think there’s definitely pressure to continue to move the ball forward. We’re not going to be satisfied with the status quo. We’re looking at new and innovative ways to address old problems. The point really is to continue to push and learn and get better at serving the community. A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s try something different’ or let’s do something in existence before but do it better.”

Even with all these currents, McQueen Shew says, “so much more needs to happen in making it a place people want to live, such as dealing with food policy issues. North Omaha is one of Nebraska’s largest food deserts. How do you expect families to move into this community and set down roots if you can’t even get food? There’s lots of vacant land that needs developing. There’s lots of things we’re lacking on an infrastructure level. We need to coalesce behind real economic development. We also need to train the next generation of leaders. Who will they be? Those conversations need to be tackled now because there are eyes on North Omaha in a positive way that weren’t on this community before, and that’s exciting.”

She insists the arts will drive people to North 24th but once there they need other gathering places to hang out, such as eateries and coffeehouses. Meadows agrees arts-entertainment amenities are essential. “In a healthy community you have multiple avenues of self-expression and self-actualization for people to explore their interests and to fulfill who they are,” he says.

Stakeholders see retail commerce flowing in North Downtown, Midtown, Benson and South Omaha but still lagging on North 24th.
“I’ve started pointedly asking investors, developers and realtors why they don’t think this of this neighborhood or community for development” McQueen Shew says.

Art as social change
That she and The Union are players in this equation is unexpected given the organization launched only six years ago and its leader got fed up with Omaha the first time she lived here A journalist by training and trade, McQueen Shew worked for a national magazine when she arrived in 2001 at the urging of an artist friend residing here. She liked the local arts scene and the people but she hated the segregation that excluded persons of color from opportunities that, by contrast, were open to everyone in New York City, where she’d lived, and in Detroit, where she grew up.

She left Omaha dismayed by its racial inequity, but returned to do something about it. She asked people hard questions.

“When I got here it was like, ‘Well, this is just the way it is, this is the way it’s always been.’ And so I started asking why. Why have you never crossed Cuming Street? Why don’t you ever go over there? Why did this happen? How has this been allowed to go on?”

It took her awhile to find the right advocacy-activist vehicle. Her failed Pulp store in Benson nearly cost her everything. Then she ran the Underground Gallery at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts before a new idea overtook her: starting a North Omaha-based organization to address chronic studio space shortages and limited access to equipment and to engage residents through programs. The Union name reflects her interest in community, inclusivity, unity and sharing.

Among Omaha residencies The Union uniquely requires fellows do a community service project in North Omaha. McQueen Shew feels it’s vital artists give back, connect with community and demystify the arts. She believes deeply in fellows being social practice artists who do public work with some greater purpose. The Union’s Neighborhood Tool Library began as a project by then-fellow Kjell Peterson. During their residency Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette worked on their sustainable foods documentary Growing Cities and formed Truck Farm, a mobile urban farm ed program operating independently today.

“Having artists engaged and visible in the community gives North Omaha residents a chance to meet artists and talk art and to find out it’s not all about sacred spaces but really a part of everybody’s life,” says McQueen Shew.

She’s aware most fellows get their first real taste of North Omaha during their residency and she’s confident they leave with changed perceptions and broader knowledge.

Before doing her Union fellowship artist Shea Wilkinson says she was “completely ignorant of what was in North Omaha” but the experience so inspired her that she’d North Omaha her home. “I love my home and my neighborhood there. One hears a lot about the crime but rarely does one hear the things that make it an area worth investing in. I have lived here three years now and love seeing the positive changes happening.”

Artist Angela Drakeford grew up in North O but she says her Union residency helped her “think about the realities of what it meant to be a black artist in America,” adding, “I started not only to think about who I was and who my audience was but also what my obligations were as an artist. The Union has a very radical mission to help empower the community. Honestly, I would not be the artist and person I am today without this fellowship. It was truly a transformational experience.”

Embracing, implementing, fine-tuning a vision
The first person McQueen Shew shared The Union’s radical concept with, Katie Weitz, caught her vision and got the Weitz Family Foundation to back it. Not everyone was supportive. “I had donors tell me I was committing career suicide when I started The Union – that no one would follow me over here and no one would come.” She ignored the naysayers. “Maybe it’s just about tenacity.” Grants came in. She took a year to flesh out the idea and to devise a strategy for making The Union, launched in 2011, sustainable. At the start it was just herself at the repurposed former food bank on Burdette. As more funding’s come, she’s added staff and programs.

For a small nonprofit with a short history the organization’s made a large impact and won over many fans. So much so it isuccessfuly realizing a $5 million Growth Campaign to support its operations and programs.

Board chair Mary Zicafoose, a textiles artist, admires how McQueen Shew has “carved out a template for an organization designed to uniquely serve the community and become a unifying bridge for the arts for the entire metropolitan area. Many hundreds of metro area citizens and arts supporters have broken bread and attended Union community events that previously had never ventured farther north than Cuming Street. That’s powerful in itself. It’s mission is to unify our greater community through the arts and that is what it does program by program, artist by artist, exhibition by exhibition.”

Zicafoose has an insider perspective on how McQueen Shew has gained so much traction so fast for the organization and its niche.

“The Union’s mission and Brigitte’s vision is a story about understanding one’s purpose, seizing opportunity, taking action and then moving forward without hesitation. Her vision and attitude is simply quite contagious. Hence, the great interest, growth, stellar track record and support of this project. Brigitte is also an articulate and accomplished networker.”

No More Empty Pots executive director Nancy Williams says, “Brigitte is genuine. She has a rich history and eloquently shares her experiences. Brigitte is also generous. Brigitte has many talents and knows how to effectively leverage those talents for The Union. She is focused and reaches out for help when needed.” When McQueen Shew put out a call for folks to clean up the current site shortly after moving in, Zicafoose says “It was transformed in one weekend with the sweat equity of a hundred community volunteers.”

Zicafoose marvels at all the organization does. “It’s really quite shocking the amount of programming that has emerged from this small building, lovingly worked and reworked, to make every inch of precious space be of purpose. The move provides more appropriate and much needed additional space for existing programs to expand and thrive as well as allow new programs to be born. Its strategic location makes it a natural hub and meeting place.”

Seventy Five North’s Meadows appreciates that The Union is “a constant and consistent presence” instead of a “one-off” project. He adds, “What I love about Brigitte and what she’s doing is that she’s made a commitment to this neighborhood and to being there all the time. Having access to explore art is an amazing opportunity for this community, whose population is often forgotten about.” For a community that’s had many promises made and unfulfilled it was important McQueen Shew and the Union develop trust and Meadows says that’s happened. “People know she’s there for the right reasons.”

Prospect Village Neighborhood Association’s Rondae Hill is impressed by how The Union’s partnered on art-infused beautification projects, including a mural, bus benches and a redesigned park, in her area.
“Prospect Village appreciates everything the Union has helped to start in our neighborhood. The mural brought new life to an old building that started a ripple effect of prosperity. It has now become the center of our neighborhood and brings pride to the area.”

Not everything The Union’s done has succeeded but it’s small and nimble enough to try new things. Three areas where McQueen Shew feels it’s fallen short is connecting with area residents, helping artist fellows with their community service projects and integrating exhibition themes across all programming. To strengthen those elements she’s hired Nicole Caruth as director of pedagogy and public practice.

“Nicole joined our staff to help ensure all of our programs revolve around our commitment to social practice,” McQueen Shew says.
“Even though we were in the community people still saw us as Other. We were still missing the opportunity to connect. We had to fix that.
Here at The Union we do everything as a team, so we had conversations about that disconnect. Nicole comes from that background. She has the resources and the networking connections
to be in tune with community.

“It’s about being flexible, realizing the gap and then going back and fixing it,. You have to be willing to jump off and readjust the course. It’s probably easier for The Union to do that than it is for an organization thats been around 40 years. Almost everything we do is a grand experiment. If we do it once and it works, awesome, let’s keep it. If it fails, then we’ glean some knowledge and let it go. We’re in an amazing position to do that.”

Forging a more perfect Union
The Union name is apt because in classic union organizing style, McQueen Shew came to Omaha as an outside agitator to build solidarity around addressing certain disparities.

“It’s just such a simple premise – that you can use the arts as a vehicle for social justice and to effect change in your community. That you can put things in place to uplift your local artists but at the same time be working to make some headway into ridiculous issues with segregation in this community. No one else was putting those two things together. They were two very separate issues and I don’t think people we’re seeing the connection,” she says.

She’s coalesced like-minded people around the mission.

“I may have been the one to stand up and wave the flag but if other people weren’t willing to fall in line with that then it never would have happened. The Union wouldn’t exist without people willing to take a leap of faith on this idea the arts can be more than just something you look at on a wall. I’m just fortunate the people with the means to help us get there also felt it a risk worth taking.

“People have made sacrifices to do this with me. Our program manager Paige Reitz took a crazy cut in salary to be here because she believed in the work I was doing. Paige was not the only staff member to take a pay cut to work with us. Actually the majority of my staff did. People willing to sacrifice something of their own to put into this dream is really how tTe Union has continued to grow.”

The Growth Campaign, which went public last summer, closed in early 2017. Its millions have helped boost employee salaries in addition to increasing the budget and solidifying things moving forward.

Public celebrations of that growth happened in October when the organization held open houses and special events at the Blue Lion. Since then, McQueen Shew and staff have been proudly welcoming visitors to their new digs and the community’s new gathering place.

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