The Gene Leahy Mall really does contribute to the soul of Omaha. Located in the middle of the city center, with all the corporate hustle and bustle, it gives a space for the town’s citizenry to gather and relax.
Even I have wonderful childhood memories of playing in the park and walking through with my parents and little sister. My most vivid memories come with the slides and feeding ducks stale bread my family was on the verge of tossing.
Speaking for most people, the mall’s closure was dramatic, and equally so, there was anticipation for the new park with its water features and monumental artworks organized by KANEKO art center.
But overall, for this critic, the park’s sculptural renovation was a letdown. The selection of artworks really seemed to fill space rather than being objects for the public to engage with intellectually.
Stehan Grot, the Executive Director of KANEKO, was tasked by the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority to select five sculptures to beautify the park. Grot consulted with experts in the field of sculpture, including Ree Kaneko, Johannah Hutchinson, and George Neubert to select the artists, which consist of Linda Fleming, Bruce Beasley, Jon Clement, Richard Hunt, and James Surls. All works are abstract and made of stainless steel. After three years, the sculptures will be rotated with another five.
One work outside of Grot’s curatorial domain is a piece by the internationally renowned British-Nigerian Artist Yinka Shonibare which sits to the very west end of the park. Taken as a whole, the sculptures feel very… “Omaha”. They’re easy, kind of like how it feels to live in this big city. They are non-offensive sculptures that just exist as backdrops for parents pushing kids in strollers.
The criteria were very practical and included accessibility for the public, weather durability, appropriate scale and family friendliness. Because the selection was rushed, the works needed to already exist and could not have been commissioned for the park. Grot also wanted racial and gender diversity among the artists. In this case, it means three white men, one white woman, and a black man.
But it could have, and should have, been a more robust exercise in inclusion, especially if gender and racial diversity was on the minds of Grot and committee. Four white artists and one black artist? Why not all black artists? Why not have a Mexican-American artist, which is especially pertinent with Omaha’s burgeoning Mexican community?
It begs the question – why not consult with the Union for Contemporary Art or El Museo Latino to provide insight into the selections?
The day after the opening, there were many people, mostly young families with toddlers climbing and sneaking into the sculptures. The ever-present iPhone camera captured children crawling or playing in the very shallow puddle surrounding the Shonibare piece, all for their Instagram or Facebook stories. An excellent use of and interaction with art, really.
Fleming’s sculpture, an angular, human-sized artwork with punched out holes lends itself to this. I saw one kid climb under the artwork and somehow got inside. There was not much to do, since the sculpture was empty, but the kid’s parent couldn’t help herself and took a shot of her child.
There’s nothing objectively wrong with taking a picture of art. It’s a common practice, but Fleming’s piece, along with the other sculptures, were curated in such a way that they exist as backdrops rather than artworks on their own merit.
This includes the impressive organic spiral, “Planar and Tubular,” stainless steel by Hunt, considered the most influential living African-American sculptor. “MONUMENTAL” Hunt’s new exhibit at Kaneko opening October 7, will underscore the ways Hunt explores the narrative of African culture—its historical origins and global movement—through large-scale, abstract public artworks.
The Shonibare piece is probably the strongest work because it was a special commission designed for this park that took years in the making. The artist wanted the work to reflect the diversity of the community and hoped this public space acknowledges that, through capturing something as intangible as wind.
“I found that there’s a significance to the idea of movement and wind, and so the idea of wind as a metaphor for the relationship between various parts of the world from Europe, Indonesia, and Africa, became something I was interested in,” he said in a zoom interview. “The fabric is something that can stand as a metaphor for the relationship between all these different peoples.
“The history of the United States is made up of Indigenous Americans as well as other migrants. I was very interested in the fact that Omaha is situated between two rivers and the symbolism of water and the honey locust Indigenous plant. There’s also the famous [Henry Doorly Zoo Desert] dome in Omaha, the grid pattern, and the circles represent the effect of water ripples going outwards, so I wanted to take those local recognizable symbols and make a pattern out of it.”
It feels like Shonibare’s “Wind Sculpture (TG)” is in opposition to the only non-abstract sculpture on the mall, recently re-sited, “Heritage” 1984, by Herb Mignery. This work shows a familial group of a father, mother, and child in an agricultural fetishistic fantasy found in the novels of Nebraska’s greatest, Willa Cather, or author Jonis Agee. It shows three European settlers on Nebraska’s Indigenous land.
Its caption reads “A gift to the people of Omaha from the Mid-America Council Boy Scouts of America, Heritage Patrons – 1984. ‘Tomorrow’s heritage of Leadership is planted today in the minds of our young people through the ideals of scouting.’”
Whose heritage does this represent? Surely not that of any “minority” in this nation. It’s a celebration of colonial expansionism and ethnic cleansing, replacing one nation so another may exist. Even outside of that context, it’s an unfortunate decision in bad taste to include this piece alongside six other abstract sculptures.
That said, the newly renovated mall has proven to be popular with the general public, all ages. Even if curatorial decisions have diminished significant public art to little more than selfie sites and wallpaper. A current lack of signage at each work’s site only increases this first impression.
The Gene Leahy Mall is free and open to the public. Located at 1001 Douglas St, Omaha, NE 68102, the park is open from 5am-11pm every day. For more information, visit https://theriverfrontomaha.com/.