Some Assembly Required

Building a healthy arts ecosystem in Omaha with a possible MFA program


(Part of an ongoing series exploring the framework within which Omaha’s visual artists labor)

One of the most puzzling gaps in the local art ecosystem is the absence of an MFA program in visual arts here in Omaha.  We are the largest city in Nebraska, after all, and home to the state’s most prominent cultural institutions, ranging from the Joslyn to Opera Omaha. 

Many of our peer cities of similar size around the country—Albuquerque, Albany, Knoxville, New Haven, Tulsa—have MFA programs.  We have three universities in the city that could support such a program.

So, why not here?  And what does the lack of a graduate-level visual arts program say about Omaha’s approach to culture? 

The absence of an MFA program is not minor, at least to those in the field.  Artist Christina Narwicz explains that when she moved to Omaha nearly three decades ago, “we were all shocked that there wasn’t an MFA program here in Omaha when we first came here.”  As Narwicz says, “It disallows a lot of culture in Omaha from the beginning.” 

Recent arrival, Prof. Adrian Duran, is even more emphatic: “The absence of an MFA program here kills me.”

Duran, who teaches art history at UNO, explains, “there’s no way to replace an MFA program.  It brings new people into town, it brings prestige for the city, it creates events for people to do, it brings visiting artists, it’s an economic engine of the metropolis.” 

Nor is the absence of an MFA program, however, a purely academic concern.  Those familiar with Omaha arts easily draw connections between the lack of a graduate visual arts program, a general lack of support for visual arts in the community, and a long-standing malaise in our visual arts sector.

Professor Bonnie O’Connell, who teaches book arts at UNO, is widely regarded as one of the most important supporters of emerging artists in this community.  She is quick to praise new artistic endeavors in Omaha, including The Union for Contemporary Arts, Project Project, and Pet Shop. 

Fundamentally, however, O’Connell is pessimistic. 

“Anyone who comes out of our BFA program and is ambitious and hardworking and contributes to our local art community reaches a point where they realize that there is not enough here, and they want to go someplace else,” O’Connell said. “For a city of Omaha’s size, there’s very little activity of artists organizing project spaces or similar endeavors.  There are always rumors that it is going to happen, but it seldom gets beyond the dreaming stage.”

As a newcomer, art historian Duran brings a different perspective to Omaha than O’Connell, but reaches largely the same conclusion.

“In Omaha, I can’t figure out why there aren’t more artists around here,” he says.  There’s stuff going on in the middle of the country.  Unemployment is low.  Omaha has a lot going for it.  So why aren’t artists coming back here?”

Against this general concern for the vitality of the community, an MFA program could be one step—and an important one—in changing the way Omaha culture grows.  Artist Charley Friedman advocates for the vibrancy an MFA program could bring to Omaha.

“To have a good art scene,” Friedman said, “you need a graduate program where students are exploring experimental ideas that have no market relevance–at all.  An MFA program means crazy shit going on.  People sitting around coffee shops just talking about ideas.”

Friedman and others see MFA students, who are spending an intensive two- to three- year period deeply immersing themselves in artistic practice, as the ones most likely to lob experimental art bombs into a sometimes quiet city. 

As UNO Professor David Helm explains, an MFA program could have a real “impact if you had five to ten students each year graduating who stayed.  This is why places like Ithaca are so interesting.  You have smart people who stay and end up creating alternative social space. We don’t see that happening here.”

An MFA program would also help to bring a flood of new ideas into the dialogue of artistic life here that could shake things up in a good way.  Art historian Duran, who is always in favor of a more robust exchange of ideas, says that intellectual life in the artistic community of Omaha “has not been in stasis, necessarily, but that there hasn’t been a flood of people in and out of the city either.”  

At a very mundane level, an MFA program here would also be a source of new programs for the general public, including opportunities to meet visiting artists or attend a frequent film series.  

Though establishing an MFA program is generally seen as a positive, Jack Zerbe, who arrived in Omaha last summer as new Director of UNO’s School of the Arts, said that there are several levels of approval that would need to be obtained, including the department chair, an accreditation committee and, finally, consideration by the university’s Regents in Lincoln. 

Though Zerbe himself “would love to have multiple MFA programs in Omaha,” he  cautions the key issue, however, is money, both for new faculty, and, especially, for construction of new studios for the MFA candidates either on- or off-campus. 

“Studio space is a very particular kind of space, and we don’t have enough of it [at UNO] to add an MFA program,” he said. “We’d have to figure out, given the way the University of Nebraska works, who wants to be a donor for that facility, because the state doesn’t really fund capital projects.  Almost all new building projects are donor-funded.”

And this is where the problem comes full circle. In a city that has sometimes shown only lukewarm support for its visual art community, it is unsurprising that no donor has stepped forward to push this project to completion. 

Back in 2008, Les Bruning, then chair of the art department at Bellevue University, attempted to create an MFA program in downtown Omaha through a partnership between the University, the for-profit Hot Shops, the nonprofit Hot Shops Art Foundation, and a new subsidiary of the Art Foundation, the Omaha Creative Institute.

The effort appears to have foundered on the finances of the venture, according to Emily Moody, the recently-installed executive director of the Omaha Creative Institute.  The estimated price tag at the time for acquisition and build-out of the Mastercraft Building–the intended MFA site–program development and an endowment: $25-50 million.

Prior efforts to create an MFA program at UNO dating back more than a decade have also come to naught, in part because of budgetary obstacles, according to Prof. O’Connell.

Even if the practical problem of funding were suddenly solved, however, the idea of an MFA program raises a series of intellectual and ethical problems that would need to be addressed.

Helm acknowledges, for instance, that some artists do quite well without an MFA program here, pointing to the trajectory of one of Omaha’s rising stars. 

“You look at people like Angela Drakeford, she stuck around for four years after her BFA, making good, critical work.  She was able to find systems to support her growth, so maybe the potential is there.” 

Helm also concedes, however, that Drakeford recently left Nebraska to pursue an MFA elsewhere.

Artist and Professor Tim Guthrie, who teaches video and graphic design at Creighton University, also has concerns about the effects of an MFA program.  Guthrie, who is quick to note that he has an MFA himself, is not persuaded that MFA programs always bring the kind of vitality that proponents hope.  Sometimes, Guthrie fears, MFA programs, instead of blowing the lid off of things, indoctrinate their students in a certain kind of New York-centric conformism. 

“I’m wondering if an MFA program would add to the problems we have here,” Guthrie says.  “MFA programs have a tendency to teach people to think in a certain way.  What might be more important for the community would be for artists who are here already doing stuff.”

Narwicz and fellow artist Kim Darling also have concerns about the academicization of the art field and the ways in which an MFA program in Omaha could have the potential to distort the creative process. 

“When I was going to college in the 80s, you only went on to a masters program if you intended to teach,” Narwicz says. “Now it’s quite the opposite. The idea that it is necessary to have a graduate degree in order to be a professional artist is troubling to me.  I’m not a writer, I’m a studio artist.  It makes me question what the new identity of an artist is.” 

Darling is more succinct. “I think its bullshit that MFAs are essentially required for everything now. The academic paradigm is very narrow in its own way.”

Academics Duran and O’Connell are also apprehensive about the future confronting their hoped-for MFA graduates. 

Even while remaining one of the strongest supporters of the MFA idea, Duran emphasizes that “we also need to think about the ethics of it.  We need to think about what will happen to all of the artists we create?  If it is going to be a puppy mill, I’d rather not.”

Noting the challenging economic prospects for artists locally, and nationally, O’Connell also hesitates. 

“Traditionally, a lot of the programs here work toward creating educators, able to teach studio art in academic programs at the undergraduate and graduate level,” O’Connell said. “Now, with changes in the university structure, it’s hard to even recommend to somebody that they should go to grad school and then go out and get a job as an adjunct professor that pays below minimum wage.”

If nothing else, however, most interviewees seemed inclined to agree that that a new MFA program would demonstrate that the city of Omaha was ready to make a sustained investment in the health of its visual arts community. 

Without such a program, or a similar investment in the artistic life of the community, the accomplishments of Omaha’s visual artists may continue to be tinged by a certain kind of resignation. 

“Here people don’t see artmaking as a valid line of work, or even as work,” Darling says. “I wish people would value artists who are here and see their potential.  They are people who are working hard and have really unique visions.  But there’s no place for them right now.  Having an MFA program here in Omaha would value art-making as a legitimate practice.”

Helm agrees.  “The thing you always wonder about this town,” he says, “is how much do they really want artists?  And especially artists like conceptual artists, not artists who are making large abstract paintings for the market.  Because the artists who do that work aren’t here.  Why are there so few performance artists in Omaha, or artist working in time-based media?  In other cities, I see this kind of work all the time in alternative venues, but I don’t see that here.”

 Zerbe, the recent arrival in our fair city, is able to move past decades of history in Omaha to get to the heart of the matter. 

“Aside from the question of whether {Omaha} can get an MFA,” he notes, “the bigger question is how do we make a community that nurtures and appreciates the value of having artists?”


Category: Art, Literary

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