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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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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 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

 

 

“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

 

 

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.

 

 

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.”

 

 

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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