The staff at Omaha Creative Institute knows it takes two to make art sustainable, the artist to create it and the audience to appreciate it. OCI is all about art and creativity accessible to people that aren’t necessarily a part of the arts scene.
“My background is unorthodox for the job I have,” said Susan Thomas, executive director.
Born in small-town Decatur, Thomas traveled quite a bit before finding her way back to Nebraska. After attending Macalester in St. Paul, Minn. she went to Vassar College settling in New York City for 30 years. Among other things, she worked on Wall Street, attended Harvard Business School in Boston and helped manage the American Express account for a high-profile advertising agency.
“I worked for Oxford University in the U.S. on fundraising and then for a small, private school for children with significant learning disabilities in marketing and development,” said Thomas.
When her mom turned 80, Thomas and her husband made the decision to head back to Nebraska.
“We were both over 50, had worked on Wall Street and had two young children in private school. We wanted them to know their grandmother, so we sold our beautiful co-op, bought a house in Dundee and enrolled the kids in public school,” Thomas said.
One of her first jobs in Omaha was in marketing with Alegent Health.“The O! Public Art Project was done on my watch. The project connected Alegent Health to all parts of the city, letting them know that Alegent is not just there for people when they are sick but also when they are well.”
Les Bruning and Tim Barry, co-founders of Hot Shops Art Gallery came up with the idea for the Omaha Creative Institute. Thomas said they dreamt of having a large non-profit that would include an MFA program, outreach to businesses and be community oriented.
She started part-time looking to buy a building, but evolved to focus on programs. “I was more focused on getting workshops started. I wanted to do something that would build our name because we really started from vapor,” said Thomas.
Thus, the Omaha Creative Institute started as a great idea with no particular funding in place and a small board. Thomas knew that a non-profit without good cash flow wasn’t going to make it and this nonprofit was going to pay artists.
“2009 was the first time we offered workshops that were accessible to everyone,” she said. “The best part was the artists didn’t have to set them up, build the audience, promote them and conduct them. We did the administrative work, made sure the artists were paid, and informed the community about what they needed to know before coming in so they were comfortable in a new environment.”
By 2010, OCI had expanded after receiving start up funds from several board members and the Omaha Community Foundation. Thomas said the organization has grown from two part-time employees to two full-time employees and two interns. In terms of this year’s revenue, she said OCI will be two and a half times the size they were in 2011.
Thomas left her dining room table behind about 20 months ago and moved into the inspiring offices at Alley Poyner Macchietto and said she loves every minute of it.
“My job is fabulous. It’s so open. People bring us ideas and we sort through and see if financial support is available for their ideas.”
Beyond testing new ideas and having paid artists to run hundreds of public and private workshops in their specialties, OCI offers and continually develops an Artist Tooklit to help artists build careers and make a living.
“I get to be involved with artists, the artistic community and with growing the creative community. I get to be everywhere in the city and make the most of what Omaha is becoming,” Thomas said.
Thomas knows her business background makes her unique, but she also wholeheartedly embraces creativity. For Thomas, creativity means using whatever knowledge and skills you have and applying them to problems or challenges in ways you might not have tried before.
During Omaha Creative Week, OCI will present Conversations on a Bus, an exhibit of photographs featuring Omaha Metro passengers. The black and white pictures are accompanied by essays that share the passengers’ stories through interviews. Thomas said the exhibit is a wonderful way to connect public transportation with art.
Working at Alley Poyner is both inspiring and stimulating to Thomas. She said on one hand it’s a professional environment, but on the other hand it is an extremely creative environment.
“What you surround yourselves with, how you spend your time and who you spend your time with can dramatically impact how open you are to the world and can make such a difference in how creative you can be,” Thomas said.
For more information on the Omaha Creative Institute’s Come Create It Workshops, Team Building Events and Artists Tools and Resources, visit omahacreativeinstitute.org.