It’s said in any given year in any given metropolitan community that about 25 percent of its population attends a museum or gallery at least once and 15 percent watch or listen to programs about art, artists and museums as well. That’s according to a 2008 Survey of Public Participation sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Interestingly, visual arts participation is greater than for, say, plays (12-17 percent), classical music (12 percent), ballet (4 percent) or opera (3 percent). If this is true, it means in Omaha in 2010, potentially 150,000 to 200,000 (city vs. greater metro population figures) of us attended an art exhibit and related event. A much smaller percent of that amount will have joined an arts venue or bought an original work of traditional or contemporary art or maybe even created one. Potentially, because it’s virtually impossible to establish exact figures, especially as to the latter two endeavors, or their overall significance. For instance, a museum’s record of admissions is no doubt partially due to multiple visits by a single individual and membership opportunities at a venue offering free admission is more qualitative than quantitative. That said, it is up to museums, centers and galleries to maximize that potential annually in light of socio-economic conditions, a none too easy task. If a quarter of the area’s population did support the visual arts in the past year, what did they see and do that stands out? What kind of year did Omaha have? In this first review, we will look at some key figures and events that shaped the area arts vibe, count our blessings and make note of a few regrets and room for improvement. At the end of January, in Part II, The Reader will publish its annual A-list, a summary of the best contemporary arts exhibits in this area for 2010. Consider the following key events for the past year: * The Joslyn Art Museum found a new director, Jack Becker, after a protracted search and he made good on his promise to rebuild its curatorial staff by hiring new Chief Curator Toby Jurovics who started in December. Becker also promised to hire a contemporary arts curator in the very near future. Meanwhile, Joslyn’s impressive but selective Kent Bellows retro exhibit, which ends Jan. 16, 2011, may account for the venue’s 10 percent increase in membership in the 2010 fiscal year but can hardly account for a reported and inexplicable 10 percent decrease in admissions. * Mark Masuoka, director of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts also reports an increase in memberships which is impressive for a non-admission venue. In addition the Bemis confirms a 22 percent increase in its door count over 2009. For 2010 the Bemis also boasts its most successful fundraising auction in the past 12 years with admissions up 17 percent over previous year and a 9.5 percent increase in proceeds. This comes on the heels of an announced $2.5 million Building Capital Campaign in 2011 that will, among other things, increase its extraordinary artist residency program capacity by 30 percent. On a sadder note, Brigitte McQueen, the manager of the Bemis Underground, resigned after reestablishing the venue as a significant player in regional contemporary art. McQueen will pursue her plans to start a new area arts center devoted to local artists while promoting social change in the greater community. A new Underground manager hasn’t been named, but for now, its 2011 schedule will continue. * The Sheldon Art Museum in Lincoln must also be singled out for its impressive year-long exhibition showcasing American women artists from its permanent collection. Particularly noteworthy are works on display by Mary Cassat, Georgia O’Keefe, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman. The exhibit continues through April 1. * Though Omaha’s KANEKO creativity center extends its influence and programs to science and philosophy as well as the arts, in 2010 it currently enjoys a popular exhibit by renowned sculptor Fletcher Benton, Folded Square Alphabets and Numericals which runs through February. * The well-established Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts officially opened its home base in the former studio of its namesake at 3303 Leavenworth St., and if its recent open house and exhibit is any indication, it is already bursting at its seams. Dedicated to the education and mentoring of junior and high school studio artists, the center is at full capacity. * For adult studio artists with career aspirations and need for low income housing, the Harvester Artist Lofts in Council Bluffs opened up last summer as part of Artspace Project, Inc. out of Minneapolis. Harvester Lofts offers 36 combo studio/living spaces and is currently over 50 percent rented or leased. * Additional support and recognition for local artists can come from grants and awards and chief among the agencies responsible for this continues to be the Nebraska Arts Council. In the fiscal year 2009, the NAC awarded over $900,000 in arts-related grants, an increase of about $100,000 from the previous year. Though not all the funds went to visual artists, $23,000 was awarded to nine fellowship honorees who will be featured in a concurrent exhibit at the Fred Simon Gallery and Bemis Center which opens this January. * The Omaha Entertainment and Arts organization celebrated its fifth year with a popular awards night at the Mid America Center. Music and drama continue to dominate the voting and event but new chairperson of the Visual Arts Committee, Rob Gilmer, vows improved recognition, disclosure and organization in 2011. * Speaking of recognition, special mention must be made of two outstanding examples of public art in 2010, especially as they gave a unique, cutting edge to the area’s contemporary vibe. The first is the collaboration of the Emerging Terrain organization and 13 artists that painted images on silos near I-80 and Vinton Street with more to come. The second is the more controversial creation of famed international sculptor Albert Paley called Odyssey , four spiky, metal thunderbolts that adorn the 24th Street overpass at I-80 and add to Council Bluffs’ reputation as the region’s leader in public art display. * On the local gallery scene, two new fundamentally different venues opened in the Old Market. The traditional Anderson O’Brien gallery occupies the former Jackson Artworks space and the more experimental New BLK Gallery has renovated the Old Krug Brewing building at 1213 Jones St. Gallery success doesn’t come easily anywhere as witnessed by the demise of Pulp, JAW and Polyester Gallery (PG reported in November it was looking for a new location, slated to open in January 2011), and the presence of these two newer venues along with the nearby RNG on Leavenworth, the 616 and the Moving Gallery in the vicinity is a welcome addition. * Finally, we must acknowledge the passing of Omaha’s premiere collector of contemporary art, Phil Schrager, who died last spring. Though much speculation persists as to the future of this most significant array of 400 plus works, director Janet Farber, says no changes to the collection are being made at this time. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual as part of the collection is still on display by appointment at its current location as part of Schrager’s legacy, and the family foundation continues to benefit Omaha socio, religious and educational charities.

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