Hesse McGraw, chief curator for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts since 2008, may be heading for San Francisco, but by all accounts he’s leaving his heart in Omaha.

McGraw has accepted an offer from the San Francisco Art Institute to be its new Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Programs. Though he says he looks forward to what can only be considered a vertical move in his young career for this accomplished 33-year-old, he admits that the transition for him and his family is an emotional one.

“The last five and a half years at the Bemis Center have been incredibly rewarding for me, personally and professionally,” McGraw says, “and I have been honored to participate in the organization’s growth and many successes. My family and I are looking forward to our move to California and my new responsibilities at SFAI, but you also can’t take the Midwest out of the boy.”

For many, his departure is both personal and professional including Rachel Jacobson, founder/director of Omaha’s Film Streams, who recognizes McGraw as a “tremendous asset to the art community and to Omaha in general. Personally, he has taught me so much through the programs he’s curated at Bemis as well as through our friendship.  He has helped to shape a lot of my ideas about curating and engaging community through art. I am very happy for him, but he will be greatly missed.”

McGraw is no stranger to art coast extremes as he came to the Bemis by virtue of his tenure at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York City as an associate director. He did this by way of hometown Kansas City as founding director and curator of Paragraph Gallery, a Charlotte Street Initiative on behalf of supporting an urban arts scene via local artists. Ironically, it was his interest and success in promoting regional priorities that got McGraw recruited by another major coastal arts player.

“SFAI”s global reputation is well known,” McGraw said, “but it is also interested in its own cultural area. I too am interested in regional differences—not in a nostalgic sense—but how SFAI’s own exhibition and public programs can play in and build that specific climate there. If you’re only thinking in international terms, you risk creating an homogenizing effect on your venue.”

His new responsibilities, which begin in June, will include programming the institute’s galleries and organizing public lectures and symposia. In addition, McGraw will create new opportunities for community involvement including partnerships with respected arts and educational institutions nationwide. Meanwhile, he will serve as advisor to Bemis during its search for a new curator and assist in the completion of exhibits already committed to this year.

McGraw can point with pride to the role he played at Bemis Center in curating exhibitions and projects that supported and showcased area artists and their community. Chief among the latter of course is Bemis’ current collaboration with cultural programmer Theaster Gates and Chicago’s Rebuild Foundation that launched Carver Bank in North Omaha at 2416 Lake Street. A place-based initiative, Carver Bank hosts an area residency program as well as exhibits, events and workshops driven by community artists and partners.

Of the more than two dozen exhibitions he curated at Bemis, of particular interest to this critic were his explorations in installation and abstract art. This includes such standout exhibits as Omaha Diner (2009), a moveable feast of outré art and cuisine from international food artist Paul Renner and local chef Paul Kulik, Matthew Dehaemers’ interactive installation, (402) DisConnect/ReConnect (2009),  James Woodfill’s Stations (2010), Borderland Abstraction (2010), the Regional Juried Exhibition begun in 2011, and Michael Jones McKean’s version of a “Rainbow Connection” over Bemis, a huge collaborative installation in 2012, to name but a few.  Strike-Slip by sculptor and installation artist Jarrod Beck, opening May 16, looks promising as well.

Some Bemis patrons may have preferred and desired more traditional exhibitions such as the estimable A Golden Year by Nebraska landscape artist Keith Jacobshagen and the extraordinary Still Lifes by Omaha photographer and arts entrepreneur Vera Mercer, but neither show could be considered conventional interpretations of their respective medium. Whether experimental or traditional, McGraw’s curatorial vision always courted certain principles of unpredictability and engagement.

“The magnetism of working in contemporary art is not fully knowing what comes next,” he said regarding the above Dehaemers installation in 2009. “Being invested in the unknown as we are in recent developments, we want to see Omaha’s art community grow and prosper, and also help that growth.”

Mission accomplished, it can be argued, as Bemis Center has certainly been at the forefront the past decade in the Metro arts scene with regard to contemporary art and community outreach. Meanwhile, the arts venue is currently transitioning through a period of unpredictability and uncertainty normally associated with the changing of the guard; the departures of former director Mark Masuoka, the Underground’s last manager/curator Joel Damon and now McGraw. Adam Price, Bemis’ new executive director, is well aware of the challenges and opportunities he faces continuing the institution’s legacy.

“Hesse’s departure leaves me with profoundly mixed feelings,” Price said in a press release. “On the one hand, I would have enjoyed deeply the opportunity to work with him at greater length. On the other hand, this new position is ideal for Hesse, and it is fundamentally healthy for the Bemis Center that we continue to evolve.”

Possibly evolve together, as talks are already underway for Bemis and SFAI to share exhibits, programs and resources going forward. And if all else, including family and friends, fail to remind McGraw where he hails from, he says an odd coincidence will be a daily memento.

“After I decided to accept their offer, I called SFAI,” McGraw said. “I got a voice mail, and at the end, it said, ‘the San Francisco Art Institute is located at 800 Chestnut, between Leavenworth and Jones St’. It felt like a “Being John Malkovich” moment. What am I supposed to think of that as a sign?”

Perhaps a sign of good things to come. Or as McGraw earlier insinuated, go west, young man, but don’t forget your roots.

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