Part of an ongoing series exploring the framework within which Omaha’s visual artists labor.

In the 1960s, the Midwest saw a proliferation of arts councils throughout the region. In Omaha, a group of arts supporters created the Metropolitan Arts Council (later known as Metro Arts). Another group created an arts council for statewide activities, the Nebraska Arts Council.

Today, the NAC has become an official agency of state government, but Omaha’s municipal arts council, Metro Arts, has ceased to exist. The absence of a city arts council puts Omaha in an unusual position.

Many cities of comparable size, from relatively liberal communities to reliably conservative ones, have arts councils that provide support to individual artists. The NAC, the only remaining arts council that covers the Omaha area, allots a mere one percent of its grant budget for direct support of artists.   

By contrast the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture regional arts council serving the Cleveland, OH, metro area gives three times as much to individual artists as a percentage of its total grant budget. Both the Metropolitan Arts Council of Greenville, SC, and the Iowa Arts Council give seven times as much.

In Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council gives eight times as much, and ArtsKC in Kansas City gives ten times as much. Portland, Oregon’s Regional Arts & Culture Council gives twenty-two times as much directly to artists.

More importantly, Omaha’s lonely path has real consequences for artists working in the city today. To understand why, and to understand the alternatives that might be possible in 2016, we have to dig into the history of Omaha’s Metro Arts, and the ways in which our history has led us — both intentionally and unintentionally — to this point.

Participants in Omaha’s arts community who are now in their 70s and 80s still remember the early days of our arts councils, and none seem to recall important philosophical differences between Metro Arts and the Nebraska Arts Council at the outset. What they do recall was that the 1960s and 1970s were a period of significant support for the arts nationally.

The budget of the National Endowment for the Arts then, in constant dollars, was about three times as large as it is today. And both national and local agencies were interested in finding ways to support individual artists.

At the national level, the strongest support for individual artists probably came through the Department of Labor, of all places, as part of its Comprehensive Education and Training Act Arts (CETA Arts) program. Rooted in the federal government’s ongoing support for artistic activity since the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, CETA Arts provided grants to local governments and nonprofits for the specific purpose of employing artists of every sort in a wide range of artistic vocations.

Although the exact size of the CETA Arts program is disputed, most estimates put its high-water mark in 1979, at $651 million dollars annually (in 2016 dollars), larger, even, than the already-large budget of the NEA at that time.

For those who did not live through the CETA Arts era, it is hard to imagine how expansive the program was. In its time, CETA Arts provided employment for tens of thousands of artists nationwide. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that more than 100 Nebraska artists would be provided with full-time jobs in the arts at a true living wage if CETA still existed today.

In the early 1970s, the Nebraska Arts Council used CETA Arts funding to implement an expansive artist-in-residence program that provided teaching artists on a full-time, temporary basis to communities throughout the state. To artists familiar with the artist teaching programs available in the state today, it may come as a shock to learn that the 1970s program run by NAC required the participating artists to spend half their time in their studio focusing only on their own practice.

Nancy Kirk, who was responsible for NAC’s artist-in-residence program in the mid-1970s, underscores the deep philosophical commitment at that time to supporting artists as artists. As she explains, the structure of the program often met with resistance from the sponsoring schools, and she viewed her role as helping to educate sponsors about the importance of maintaining an artistic practice.  

“The artists were paid at a full-time rate,” Kirk said, “[but] half of the artists’ time was to be spent working in their art form and half of the time sharing the art form in some way with students and teachers in school. There was always pressure from the schools to focus on the teaching component, so I had to explain to first-time sponsors how important it was for those artists to continue doing their art, because otherwise they just became teachers.”

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Nebraska Arts Council and Metro Arts began to diverge in terms of their philosophical commitments as NAC started to focus more heavily on stabilizing the finances of the state’s biggest arts institutions.

Gloria Bartek, then NAC’s deputy director, moved over to Metro Arts and took Kirk and fellow NAC employee Eleanor Jones with her. The intention of Bartek, who is described by many as “intensely egalitarian,” was to keep the focus of Metro Arts on underserved communities—including the individual artists themselves.

At Metro Arts, Bartek, Kirk, and Jones replicated the NAC artist-in-residence program on a city-wide basis, paying artists for full-time work and requiring them to spend half their time focused on their own practice.

 According to Kirk, “Gloria’s feeling was that the larger arts groups were able to generate support from businesses and foundations, and that what Metro Arts needed to focus on was serving populations not generally served by the arts. That was primarily individual artists and community groups in North and South Omaha, where a lot of other institutions didn’t go much at the time.”

CETA Arts ended abruptly with the election of the Reagan administration in 1980.

The termination of CETA Arts was a significant blow to the finances of Metro Arts. So, too, was Bartek’s insistence on a community-based focus, which did not always fit comfortably with the goals of Omaha’s philanthropic community at the time. As the 1980s passed, Metro Arts came to depend increasingly on funding from Douglas County and the Nebraska Arts Council itself.

Karen Levin, the founder of Omaha’s Children’s Museum, replaced Bartek as executive director of Metro Arts in 1990. She was the last executive director of the organization. By that time, Metro Arts had already declined from approximately seven full-time positions down to just two. Those last few years, Levin kept the organization focused on its artist roots, making a robust range of services available to the artist community. But the handwriting was already on the wall.

Metro Arts closed in 1992, leaving Omaha without an institution focused primarily on supporting the work of artists as artists.

“When Metro Arts closed, Omaha lost an advocacy group that took the whole community into account,” Kirk said, but she is quick to acknowledge progress since the mid-80s as well as the work that remains to be done.

“We have to give the larger Omaha cultural institutions a big thumbs up for the work they are doing to be more inclusive, especially reaching out into the schools, but we haven’t found many ways to support the individual artists, especially visual artists, either with money to live on or additional opportunities of other kinds.”

Today, the two governmental entities that do fund arts and culture in Omaha give little to individual artists. Douglas County gives nothing directly to artists through its tourism fund, and the NAC gives just one percent of its granting budget directly to artists.

NAC’s current executive director, Suzanne Wise, offers a spirited and entirely reasonable defense of its funding priorities. She notes the importance of maintaining the state’s largest cultural organizations, and also points out that NAC does, in fact, support artists.

More than a quarter of all NAC grant funds go through nonprofits and localities to support the work of artists as educators, performers, and exhibitors — and an even larger portion of funds likely winds up in the pockets of artists in ways that the organization does not currently track.

Wise herself acknowledges, however, that NAC could have chosen to use its federal funds to give more directly to artists, but that the agency has other priorities. She explains that NAC is not at all opposed to having Omaha, as a locality, revisit that political decision.

“I would suggest that if Omaha as a community sees public value in providing financial support to artists for doing their own thing, then a new version of Metro Arts is in order. It is something NAC would be happy to fund,” she said.

In the meantime, the absence of an organization like Metro Arts continues to reverberate. As one senior arts administrator notes, in the current environment, “Omaha is not particularly artist-focused at all. It is institutionally-focused. So the museums and art centers, that scene is doing quite well compared to a decade ago. But in terms of recognizing the value of an individual artist and what an individual artist can do for the community, I’m not sure that is even being talked about in any significant way.”

The moment may be approaching, however, when the existence of a city arts council may be ripe for reconsideration.

“Sometimes you don’t know what’s good until you lose it,” Levin said. “That’s what happened with the Metropolitan Arts Council, it had to go away. And now maybe is the time for it to be reborn — if the philanthropists in the community are interested.”

Former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub is inclined to agree.

“Conceptually, the idea of an arts council has a lot of merit. It might be that now is a good time to explore it again,” Daub said. “As Omaha moves from a metropolitan center to a cosmopolitan center, we need to always be thinking about how do we make Omaha a better city for artists and for everyone else.”

Daub sees two potential obstacles to success. First is that the creation of any new organization has the potential to provoke a “turf battle with existing cultural institutions wary about what authority they would need to cede to such a new entity.”

The second potential obstacle is the differing conceptions about the proper role of government in our community.

“I suspect, given our generally conservative philosophy of government,” Daub said, “that the private and philanthropic sector would not be happy with the idea of an arts council. They would wonder what business does government have getting involved in this stuff? 

Of course, I’d point out in response that the board of the Holland Center is appointed by the Mayor [and that] the Holland Center got built with $50 million of taxpayer money. There’s a connection to government.”

Another potential issue is what form a new city arts council should take and what programs it should pursue.

“If you’ve seen one arts council, you’ve seen one arts council,” said Bruce Davis, executive director of ArtsKC. Beyond the political question of how much to invest in individual artists, every organization develops new programmatic ideas to meet the specific needs of their community.

ArtsKC, for instance, created Artist, Inc., a program that teaches business skills to artists, and that was recently imported here by the Omaha Creative Institute. The organization also offers Now Showing for Business, an exhibition program through which ArtsKC places curated exhibitions in local businesses for periods of approximately six months.

The Greenville Metro Arts Council organizes an annual weekend tour of more than 100 artist studios. In Knoxville, the arts council offers subsidized working space for artists.  

In St. Paul, MN, the city government, in partnership with Public Art St. Paul, a private organization, places two artists inside the mayor’s office for a period of years. The mandate of these City Artists, as they are known, is not to create public art, per se, but to work “upstream” with city agencies to address the problems of city life.

Colleen Sheehy, executive director of Public Art St. Paul, describes just a few of the projects that have come out of this intensive partnership between the city and its artists, including whimsical street signs that cause drivers to slow down in residential neighborhoods, nearly 1,000 poems that have been printed in concrete sidewalks that are being poured by the department of public works anyway, and city trucks that bring surveys (and custom popsicles as rewards) directly to community members rather than expecting residents to come to more traditional meeting venues.

“How can an artist work within a city system and make interventions and raise awareness in a way that would never happen just with city workers?” Sheehy said. “We do some things that are more like conventional public art — sculptures and plazas — but we also like to think about the city as this gigantic, complex distribution network for art.” 

If the issues about the form and shape of a new arts council can be resolved, the sky might be the limit.

“Regardless of who is the mayor and who is on the city council,” said the local senior arts administrator mentioned above, “if you had a paid staff member who sat in on all the city meetings, just being at the table, giving the arts a voice, that could be really important. The one thing that would really make a lot of things happen would be some sort of city office of cultural affairs. That could be a real game-changer for this community.” 

For her part, Kirk, a strong proponent for individual artist support, lends a cautionary note.

“For individual artists or small groups, it isn’t enough to say give me money because we are good,” she said. “For those artists who want to be recognized as part of the essential arts community, they have to behave like essential parts of the art community. They have to be advocating for the Omaha Community Playhouse as well as for their dance ensemble, the Joslyn as well as their studio practice.”

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