OPINION: Omaha needs to recognize the importance of local art on a larger scale


Hailey Stessman

There’s something special about noticing how much respect a city has for their local artists.

As a teenager growing up in the city of Papillion, there were limited options outside of school where we could have fun. My group of friends would walk around Walmart at ungodly hours, attend student night at Twin Creek Cinema or take the back roads behind our high school.

But most of the time, we would all get into a car and make the 30-minute drive to the Old Market in Omaha. It became a routine to reserve every Saturday evening as a time to make the trek downtown and to listen to the notes of saxophones or guitars or even bagpipes improvised on the corners of the streets. Compared to the life back in Papillion, the creative scene in the Old Market was exciting. We were yearning for a space where we could appreciate the creativity and imagination of local art and businesses. The Old Market was the only existing place we knew of at the time, that could offer that.

After a while, the Old Market lost its glimmer for us. We became used to what downtown offered. Our hunger for unseen local art began to grow.

There has long been a discussion regarding why some teenagers and college students, including me, are itching to leave Nebraska once they graduate. What is it that Nebraska is lacking in order to keep these individuals in Omaha? What needs to change?

For me, the problem lies in Omaha’s respect for the arts.

Everyone knows about or has gone to the Joslyn Museum. Everyone has stepped foot in or seen a show at the Orpheum. There are large landmarks of art within Omaha. But what about the art on a “smaller scale”? How many people have been to the Union for Contemporary Art? How many people know about Benson First Friday? How many people have stepped foot into a gallery they happened to see during their commute?

Omaha has an abundance of art. But why does it seem like other cities are so far ahead in the art scene? Why is local art not as acknowledged as the Joslyn Museum or the Orpheum?

On Jan. 13, Senator Megan Hunt introduced bill LB943 that would allow the Nebraska Arts Council to officially designate areas in Omaha as creative arts districts. These grants, provided by the Nebraska Arts Council, would be funded by sales from Save the Arts license plates mentioned in bill LB942 which Hunt also introduced.

By establishing official creative arts districts in and around Omaha, the city would cultivate an environment where younger individuals and local artists could foster relationships over their interests in the arts. The city would come even more alive with exhibitions, gallery openings, poetry readings, live music and more.

“Creative districts can revitalize neighborhoods and improve the quality of life for its residents,” Hunt said in a press release from the Nebraska Legislature.

Art, in the various ways in which it is expressed, has the power to bring people together and to start conversations about topics that need to be brought forward. It gives a voice to those who have felt like they have been robbed of their own their whole life. It exposes individuals to ideas and perspectives they have never experienced before. It’s vital to our growth as human beings.

“These districts can bring physical transformation, economic growth and greater community and cultural cohesion,” Hunt said. “There are over 300 creative districts across the country, but Nebraska is one of the few states that does not recognize any creative districts.”

Recently, for example, Narfoof, For the Strange, a space for local artists to sell their handmade jewelry, prints and clothing, announced on their Instagram that they would be holding their very last pop-up. I always saw my favorite local artists and friends advertising and attending these pop-ups to support their fellow Omaha artists. It warmed my heart to know that part of the community cared about keeping Narfoof, For the Strange open. Unfortunately, that space will no longer be available for those artists who spend hours creating personalized earrings or colorful pronoun pins.

Bills like Hunt’s LB943 are helping those individuals with the hope that Omaha can support their local artists by curating a safe space, like Narfoof, For the Strange, where local art can be seen by the eyes of Omaha.

“I think it would set us apart from our normal stereotype and attract a new generation of people who are interested in the arts,” said second-year UNO student Annika Kuchar. “For example, someone might move to New Orleans specifically for the art scene. Hopefully, someday Nebraska can be like that, too.”

Our city needs to acknowledge and respect the many individuals who are keeping the art of Omaha alive.

But we need to remember that local artists need our help too, not just the city’s. Attend live readings. Go to underground concerts of bands you’ve never heard of. Look at the art tucked into the corners of coffee shops.

Who knows what you’ll discover.