Citywide: Omaha, Nebraska

Citywide: Omaha, Nebraska

From established arts districts to fledgling venues, the craft scene in this Midwestern city is booming.
Kaneko Exhibition

Kaneko, a cultural center Jun and Ree Kaneko established, offers a wide variety of programming. A recent exhibition: “Fabric of Survival,” tapestries by Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz.

Aaron Zavitz

In Omaha, Nebraska, craft finds a home by the cash registers of popular coffee shops and in the galleries of the Old Market district. It’s in new stores selling local wares and old-school spaces showcasing visual arts for decades. Fueled by the community’s kinetic energy, artists young, old, and in between are opening businesses, starting fairs, and launching new creative spaces. The craft scene has grown exponentially in recent years, says jeweler and craft advocate Liz Moldenhauer, and it’s on the cusp of explosion.

The scene lacks a single nucleus; instead, the arts flourish in pockets all over the city, thanks to a strong, interconnected community. Established arts districts include the Benson neighborhood in north central Omaha, Vinton Street in south Omaha, and the Old Market downtown, while standalone galleries and boutiques are tucked in niches all across town. The Blue Pomegranate Gallery features metalwork, jewelry, and glass in West Omaha. The Union for Contemporary Art and Carver Bank feature works in northeast Omaha. And craft fairs? Well, they pop up just about everywhere.

Cultivating craft Because of its affordable cost of living, Omaha offers craftspeople a chance to more easily make their art a full-time gig – with several creative organizations playing a vital supportive role. Handmade Omaha, a collective of artists, is just one resource for the craft community. The group links craft makers to craft lovers, hosting two large bazaars a year featuring handmade goods.

Just north of downtown, woodworkers, ceramic artists, screen printers, and metalworkers can find equipment and workspace at Bench. The public woodworking shop, co-working space, and artisan hub also hosts fairs and offers classes.

A few blocks from Bench, many Omaha makers sell their wares at the newly opened True Blue Goods and Gifts. Co-owner Jessica Mogis began the business to give artists a place to showcase their talent. “We didn’t just want to open any store, we wanted it to be special and supportive of the community,” she says.

True Blue features work by about 30 makers. Most are local; among them, Handmade Omaha’s co-director, Rachel Ourada, sells whimsical crocheted riffs on taxidermy and fabric button jewelry, while Josh Knutson of Made by Human Studios makes wares from local wood. “It’s just amazing how much talent there is locally when you take all of these people off the internet and off Etsy and meet them one on one,” Mogis remarks.

Head further north to find the Union for Contemporary Art, a space supporting community initiatives, with workshops, a co-op art space and ceramic studio, wood shop, tool library, and regular exhibitions such as the June show “Stitch” by textile artist Sarah Rowe. The organization will soon be relocating to a larger space a few blocks north, although a move date is still to be determined.

Omaha’s larger art institutions, including Joslyn Art Museum, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and Kaneko, also help support the craft scene. Located just outside downtown, Joslyn features contemporary and historical American Indian craftwork in its permanent collection. The gallery also recently featured “Material Voices,” an exhibition of work by famed fiber artist (and ACC Fellow) Sheila Hicks, a Nebraska native.

Old Market
Take a stroll through Omaha’s historic Old Market district to enjoy charming red-brick roads, old-school architecture, and plenty of craft. There, Kaneko was founded in 1998 by internationally known ceramist Jun Kaneko and his wife, Ree, a curator. The space seeks to generate new ideas and celebrate creativity “throughout its diversity,” Ree Kaneko explains, from business to science to philosophy. The center often hosts wide-ranging exhibitions, including 2015’s “Fiber,” a multi-part show that featured work by craft luminaries such as 2016 ACC Fellow Nick Cave, along with the juried American Tapestry Biennial, and “Fabric of Survival,” 36 works by Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz.

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, founded by the Kanekos with several others, is located just a block away. The space hosts international residency programs and regular exhibitions at its downtown location, as well as at Carver Bank, its north Omaha branch born from a partnership with Chicago-based social practice artist Theaster Gates.

A smaller but equally vital venue in the Old Market is Omaha Clayworks, which offers classes, studio space for working artists, and a small shop. More craft is on view at a number of other galleries in the district: Anderson O’Brien Fine Art, which showcases bubble-like bowls by Viscosity glass studio, as well as jewelry, ceramics, and textile goods; Passageway Gallery, a co-op, which shows Mark Fletemeyer’s geometric woodwork, and glass and metal jewelry by Sandy Hagen among its craft artists; the Artists’ Cooperative Fine Art Gallery featuring glasswork by Frank Daharsh, wood pieces by Doyle Howitt, and textile work by Agneta Gaines, among others; and Old Market Artists Gallery. A few blocks beyond the Old Market you’ll find Gallery 1516, which has featured wire sculpture by Larry Sosso.

North of downtown is Hot Shops Art Center, recognizable by its orange main building, a former mattress factory that provides 57 artist studios for glassmakers, ceramists, jewelers, and more. Building manager Tim Barry, also a partner at the complex’s larger ceramic studio, explains the center’s philosophy as one of artistic freedom: “We give [artists] permission to be creative, [then] stay the hell out of their way.”

At their twice-yearly open house, the doors of Hot Shops’ studios are flung open, welcoming visitors with gallery shows, music, and demonstrations ranging from glass blowing at Crystal Forge studio to casting and pottery, part of the center’s mission to help the general public see the link between maker and finished product.

In the neighborhoods
In central Omaha, at Modern Arts Midtown, gallery owner Larry Roots showcases sculpture in a variety of mediums, in monthly exhibitions. From there, head southeast to Vinton Street for another cluster of galleries, including Gallery 72, with exhibitions that have included Shea Wilkinson’s celestial tapestries and glasswork by Corey Broman. Just down the street is experimental art space Project Project, as well as newer gallery Darger HQ. Oracle Art Supply and the Apollon share a building, providing art supplies, along with performance and visual art shows. South of Vinton is El Museo Latino, a hub for Latino art, which recently featured “Arte Plumaria,” an exhibition of Martha Lopez Luna’s feather art.

Want to see more? Take a trip halfway across town to the rapidly growing and revitalizing Benson neighborhood, where Benson First Friday emerged in 2012, a monthly celebration of art. When founders Alex Jochim and Jamie Hardy began the event, it was supposed to be a one-time thing, but it celebrated its fourth year in June. “One of our biggest goals was creating this accessible platform to showcase work,” Jochim reflects.

The event features an outdoor art market in the summer, giving 20 to 30 makers booth space to sell anything and everything. There are exhibitions in stores and spaces up and down the neighborhood streets, too. In the winter, the outdoor market heads into hibernation, but plenty of work is still shown indoors, in stores such as Paperdoll Vintage Boutique, which features local craft, including jewelry by Haute Bauble.

Rachel Ourada has sold work at Benson First Friday from the start and has watched it flourish. “When we started doing Benson First Friday in 2012, it was really small and it was all by word of mouth,” she recalls. Now, it’s one of the biggest events in the city, with nearly two dozen venues participating.

As Benson First Friday proves, makers can find a home just about anywhere in Omaha. From established galleries to storefronts to pop-up shows, the curious craft enthusiast has a citywide array of creative and innovative work to explore.

Andrea Kszystyniak is a reporter and writer in Omaha. She reports for the Omaha World-Herald and is a cofounder of Omaha Zine Fest.