Art as revolution

Brigitte McQueen's Union for Contemporary Art reimagines what's possible in North Omaha


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.

An upcoming 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 year-rouund artist residency and youth education programs. Visiting artists will receive a stipend for supplies and access to professional development. At the end of their six-month 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.”

Board president Watie White 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.”

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 A 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. In December, the Birdhouse Collective is staging a Home exhibition at the Bancroft Street Market as a Union fundraiser, and early next year the Union is collaborating with Peerless Gallery and Worksite on an art-in.

Until its own buildings are renovated 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.”

Follow Union developments at www.u-ca.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com


Category: Art, Literary
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