For some time now, downtown drivers along Leavenworth Street have been channeling Tom Waits (“What’s he building in there?”) as they’ve whizzed past renovations happening near the corner of 16th.
First came destruction. Signs for Avis car rental were plastered over. Metal garage doors were boarded up. Slowly, the non-descript facade gave way to signs of progress. Simple geometric volumes began unifying the building’s fabric with its low-slung brick neighbor.
A new entrance framed by a two-story glass opening was installed. The numbers 1516 next wrapped the corner of a new parapet. Architectural grace emerged, and this fall Metro welcomed a new arts venue.
Gallery 1516, which opened to the public at the end of October with its inaugural exhibition, Friends of Kent, is the brainchild of Patrick Drickey, the result of his singular and unyielding passion.
A photographer in both the art and commercial realms, Drickey and his company, Stonehouse, are recognized internationally for his lush, detailed panoramic landscapes that capture the essence of the world’s most beloved golf courses.
Drickey has long been an involved in the local art scene, as well as being an early convert to the certain charms of the Old Market. He was a co-founder of the Artists’ Coop in the 1970s, presently serves on the Nebraska Arts Council board, and has maintained a downtown business presence for decades. When the buildings on Leavenworth came on the market in 2000, he took advantage of a need to relocate.
As the newest addition to the cultural fabric of downtown Omaha, Gallery 1516, is a nonprofit and performance space “dedicated to the exhibition, study and promotion of Nebraska and regional artists.”
The gallery will accomplish its goals primarily as a visual arts venue, as well as a space willing to host music, opera, dance and performance in addition to its more traditional offerings of changing exhibitions and lectures.
The eastern-most building of the complex is what remains of the century-old St. Philomena grade school; fittingly, it had most recently housed the studio of longtime Creighton art professor Frances Kraft. In time, Drickey transformed part of the space into the state-of-the-art home for Stonehouse, and the upper level into an office/guesthouse/art gallery/event space.
Slowly, the venue began hosting arts events. Among them were shows devoted to Omaha artists Leonard Thiessen and Milton Wolsky, whose important contributions to the development of area visual arts, Drickey felt, had been too long obscured. The gallery had also featured recent work by Bill Hoover, Larry Sosso and Joe Broghammer, indicating an interest that would not just be historical. Drickey further teamed with the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney, an institution whose mission is to celebrate the accomplishments of artists connected to this state.
They were a taste of things to come, because behind the scenes, Drickey was formulating plans to expand into the space occupied by Avis when its lease was up, to turn it into serious, professional galleries that could be made available to Nebraska’s artists to show their work.
Now completely renovated, the gallery boasts 6,600 square feet of floor space with over 400 running feet of display along its purpose-built walls and flexible suspended system of vertical hanging screens, an innovation of which Drickey is especially proud.
The envelope of the space itself is also a work of art, as its transformation from an 1883 livery stable into a stable-less gallery of art can be enjoyed in the exposed brick walls, wood trusses and corrugated metal ceiling; the new terrazzo underfoot provides a perfect marriage of old and new craftsman-industrial sensibilities.
A good gallery, however, is more than a clean, well-lit space. It is a place where returning visitors may expect to see art that enriches, challenges and expands understanding of the creative spirit. Especially important to Drickey, it should affirm the value that artists have in our communities and encourage young people to choose creative careers.
The mission of Gallery 1516 is to provide a venue for regional artists to exhibit their work at no charge to the artist, according to its website which further adds “No hanging or exhibition fees are charged to artists, nor commissions charged on work sold from the gallery.” This positions the nonprofit space well apart from commercial galleries, who share in a percentage of sales in return for providing space, promotion and management.
The effort to promote economic viability in this way has not gone unnoticed says Susan Thomas, Omaha Creative Institute’s founding executive director.
“As Omaha's creative landscape continues to evolve, Gallery 1516 is a clever way to be supportive of local artists. Importantly, its nonprofit structure allows the organization to work closely with talented artists striving to be financially sustained through their chosen craft. And the gallery makes local artwork even more accessible to a growing audience.”
Artists wishing to exhibit their works submit an online application, which is vetted by Drickey and a small team of curatorial advisors. Because of the space’s flexible display potential, he envisions that several shows may run concurrently, perhaps along a given theme or interwoven context.
Also important to 1516’s mission is its pursuit of collaborations with other state organizations. Foremost, it solidifies a relationship with MONA, which will share exhibition programming regularly.
“Opportunities like these promote Nebraska art and artists to a broader audience,” said MONA Director Audrey Kauders. She noted that Drickey’s “passion for Nebraska artists parallels MONA’s and this single vision naturally brings us together to showcase, nurture and celebrate Nebraska’s artists.”
Drickey has also forged relationships with the Nebraska chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Omaha Symphony and Opera Omaha. He welcomes the potential to partner with the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City and the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln.
In this manner, Gallery 1516 steps into a kind of breach in local nonprofit programming. For venues such as Joslyn or Kaneko, programs might include the state’s artists, but it is not a specific part of their brief nor a routine part of their offerings.
The Bemis Center has variously made room for locals in its programs, but its cyclical mission realignment has left their role a bit of an unknown. Understandably, the area-focused Union for Contemporary Arts does not maintain an interest in presenting historical perspectives. In Omaha, Gallery 1516 is perhaps closest in spirit to the Nebraska Arts Council’s Fred Simon Gallery, with its focus on the state’s visual artists.
Excitingly, Gallery 1516’s first exhibition sets a high bar for the seriousness, professionalism and insightfulness of future endeavors. Entitled Friends of Kent, the show marks the tenth anniversary of the untimely passing of lauded realist artist Kent Bellows by joining a retrospective of his career with the output of fellow travelers Vern Bellows, Stephen Cornelius Roberts, Edgar Jerins, Mark Chickinelli, Paul Otero and Greg Scott. Friends of Kent continues through Jan.1, 2016 and gallery hours and details can be found at gallery1516.org.
Kent Bellows is one of Omaha’s most recognized artists, with a distinct style, a loyal national following, New York gallery representation, and a considerable persona. Drickey counts himself among Bellows’ inner circle and has made it a point, along with the artist’s family and local admirers, of keeping alive the flame of his legacy. For this show, Drickey joined again with Dr. Molly Hutton, who also served as guest curator for the 2010 Bellows retrospective at Joslyn.
For 1516, Hutton assembled a show that reprised many of the iconic artworks—self-portraits as well as penetrating studies of family and friends—plus lesser-known early paintings and an array of nudes that hadn’t quite fit the “family-friendly” rubric of the Joslyn presentation. In all, 55 of Bellows works are on view, drawn from area collections.
Bellows was known for his keenly observed and meticulously detailed drawings in pencil or charcoal, and for paintings in egg tempera and acrylic on panel. Each has a nearly magnetic attraction, for at the technical level, the artist had a tremendous gift for conveying in exacting detail the texture of a surface or the plasticity of flesh. Beyond that, Bellows could limn the mood of a place or the demeanor of an individual.
All the things that interested or concerned him were injected into his artwork—his love for movies, science fiction and music; the intensity of family life, etc.—in what Hutton describes as “an all-encompassing and necessary process of coming to terms with his own reality through total engagement with the creative act.”
It wasn’t just that Bellows could record reality—he created it. He had a knack for turning a portrait into an implied narrative—“little movies that don’t move,” he called them once. The mature works on view especially illustrate that he often sought confrontation, whether in the form of self-scrutiny or veiled psychodramas that were supercharged by his elaborately handcrafted background sets. The cycle he began on the Seven Deadly Sins in the years prior to his death were among the most iconographically, psychologically and visually complex of his career.
Bellows’ legacy is not only in the artwork he left behind, but in the lives that he touched, as represented by the works of his fellow artists here. Most of them, like Drickey, were his contemporaries, though Vern Bellows, represented by a single still life, was Kent’s father.
The elder Bellows was an accomplished watercolorist, ad artist and illustrator, and, per the label description, Kent’s “best friend.” Clearly, they shared a love of detail, of the meaning and sentiment that might be invested in ordinary items; Hutton points out that “several of the same still-life elements that appear in his father’s works also appear in Kent’s.”
This group of artists also shares the thread of realism. As did Bellows, Otero thrives on highly detailed portrait subjects rendered in graphite. Similarly, he implies narrative by foregrounding his sitters against imaginative backgrounds, sometimes terrestrial, sometimes celestial. If Bellows was an auto-biographer, Otero is a magic realist, in which his dreamscapes merge plausibly authentic interior and exterior worlds.
Continuing the metaphor, then, it’s fair to call Roberts the master of non-fiction. An Omaha-based artist whose career also rooted in New York around the same time as Bellows’, Roberts has focused nearly exclusively on oil paintings of nude subjects. His models are confrontational in a different way—life-size or larger, they stare you down from across the room.
This is the serious business of form and color, with no busy backgrounds to distract a shy eye. Yet corporeal as the nudes are, Roberts does not seem to permit his subjects to be the muses of our fantasies, except perhaps for the delightful “Narcissus’ Sister”, a kind of pre-Snapchat wink at exhibitionism.
Perhaps the inheritor of the Bellows’ psychologically fraught realism is the younger Jerins, an Omaha native who now lives in New York. Working in large scale in charcoal on paper, he has generated an ongoing series of theatrically lit, emotionally taut dramas both inspired by and featuring members of his family.
His pieces have been called “narrative noir” for their tense cinematic qualities, tonal contrasts and sense of foreboding. If Bellows’ work questions the meaning of life existentially, Jerins’ seems to ponder it fatalistically.
Rounding out the presentation are the works of two artists who careers have more closely hewn to the commercial ends of the art world, but whose backgrounds and love of art grew from local seeds.
Chickinelli has shared his subjects ranging from images of musicians to Western and Native American subjects, the latter of which make interesting counterpoints to Bellows’ early and little known paintings inspired by vintage photographs. Chickinelli is certainly a colorist, and prefers a looser painterly approach to capturing the spirit of people and places.
Scott, who had spent many years as the art director for Rolling Stone magazine, has lent several of his pencil drawings. They partake of surrealism, sometimes dark and fantastic, other times spotlighting the humor in odd conjunctions.
He cott takes particular pride in having commissioned a young Bellows to produce a portrait of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick for the magazine, an image that soon became iconic and is featured in the exhibition.
Judging by the hundreds of smiling faces at the gallery’s opening on October 22, Omaha is happy to recognize not only its practitioners of realist style but also its new reality—that it now has an HQ for artistic talent of this region.
“This is a world-class space,” says Roberts, “and shows great consideration for the financial needs of artists.”
“Pat has always done things first class and his vision of presenting Nebraska artists is unique and very helpful,” adds Chickinelli. So what did he build in there? A new artist’s stable, indeed.