Art for the 'Real World'

Art for the 'Real World'

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Lampworker Tom Friedman makes glass beads during a Hot Shops open house this past May.

When the Hot Shops Art Center in Omaha, Nebraska, held an open house in May, 6,500 visitors came through. People who'd never think to enter a gallery chatted with artists, typically disengaged teens tried their hands at clay, and crowds watched wide-eyed as an artist swirled molten glass like cotton candy.

Held twice yearly, these open houses are a relaxed and convivial art party for the community. No dress code or jargon separate the art crowd from the "hoi polloi." And there are no stupid questions; preschoolers and PhDs alike can ask, "How do you do that?" If the highest goal of art is engagement, these events are a success.

The Hot Shops opened in 1999 as studio space for working artists in a 92,000-square-foot facility that had housed a Serta mattress factory; it quickly became a venue for artistic engagement with the community. In summer 2001, for example, Hot Shops founders launched a summer sculpture project designed to spark public interest in art. The J. Doe Project, drawing on similar public art projects in New York and Chicago, distributed 106 fiberglass mannequins to local artists, who interpreted the human form in an array of noteworthy ways. The life-size sculptures were placed around the city, in malls and parks and on street corners; whole families followed maps to more than 100 sites. "The Does stretched our visions of beauty and invited storytelling," says ceramist Tim Barry, a Hot Shops founding member. Art was out of the galleries, off the pedestals, and part of everyday life.

Sculptor and founding member Les Bruning sees a growing interest in art in Omaha and attributes it to accessibility; people have seen art in public spaces and become more familiar with it, and many have attended an open house and decided that understanding it isn't so hard after all. To some degree, art has been demystified for this Midwestern city. "At the Hot Shops, our emphasis is on producing art. Work is something people can relate to, and seeing the hard work that artists do to achieve their ideas diminishes the supposed gulf between the ‘real' world and the art world."

The Hot Shops was originally designed to house four "hot" art studios (ceramics, glass, ironwork, and bronze casting and fabrication). Today there are 56 individual artist studios, four galleries, classrooms, a framing business, common studio areas for tools and equipment, and three core studios: Les Bruning Sculpture, Crystal Forge (glass), and Hot Shops Pottery.

"Hot Shops is a place where ‘what ifs' - ideas and materials - are explored and created," says Barry. One particular "what if" sparked the nonprofit Omaha Creative Institute in 2008, funded by the Hot Shops Art Foundation, which grew from the arts center. Visitors who had watched artists at work at the Hot Shops could go a step further and try for themselves. At OCI workshops, participants might twirl a blowpipe tipped with molten glass, explore rhythm with African drums, or mix colors on canvas. "Our whole goal is to bring creativity to the community," says OCI executive director Susan Thomas. As a very literal example, OCI artist Tom May joined this year's Cinco de Mayo parade, drawing caricatures of people along the route and handing out chalk.

OCI also teaches creativity skills to businesses and professional skills to artists. Thomas believes creative thinking is vital to a city: "It opens minds and broadens people's experiences," she says.

"Creativity fires up vibrancy and vitality, economic development, and diversity. The arts keep a city alive."

Suzanne Smith Arney is an art-loving freelance writer in Omaha.