Sometime soon, after the walls go up and the artists move in, a formerly mothballed pair of connected buildings on Lake Street will begin their next chapter.
What will open in this space, called Carver Bank, in homage to its past as Nebraska's first black-owned bank, is an artist-in-residence program.
This is rare in Omaha. Only two other such places in town pay artists to create in rent-free studios.
One is the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts downtown, where some 1,400 artists internationally compete for one of 36 three-month spots.
The other is the Union for Contemporary Art, housed in the old Catholic Charities outreach building at 2417 Burdette St. Launched in 2011, the Union provides six-month fellowships that include a $600 stipend and free studio space.
The Carver Bank project will offer yearlong fellowships and pay $500-a-month stipends. Four artists have been chosen from among the 46 who applied.
The Carver Bank building, in the historic heart of north Omaha at 24th and Lake, has a long, storied history.
Most notable are the Carver Savings & Loan years. A group of black citizens founded the bank in 1946 and named it for scientist George Washington Carver.
No one is sure when the bank closed. It was last listed in an Omaha city directory in 1966.
The building had subsequent lives as home to two nonprofits: Habitat for Humanity and Family Housing Advisory Services.
Since 2006, when Family Housing moved into a new $3.3 million headquarters across the street, Carver has stood as an empty placeholder.
Its transformation into art studios and a gallery is a bit serendipitous.
The story involves a young curator, an internationally known Chicago artist and some bleak statistics about Omaha's race and income gap.
Hesse McGraw, chief curator for the Bemis, was moving to Omaha in 2008 and wanted to learn about the city. He ran across the much-circulated World-Herald report on black poverty.
Two statistics from our series, based on 2005 numbers, shook him. One was that nearly six out of 10 black children were living in poverty, the highest rate in the nation at the time. The other was an income gap between blacks and whites in this city that was second only to Minneapolis.
This was on Hesse's mind when he went to Seattle for an art conference and met Theaster Gates. Theaster is a Chicago-based artist whose work involves the visual, some performance and community soul-searching about race. And place.
“Where are the freakin' black artists in this town?” Gates would later ask about Omaha.
Hesse thought about the paradox of an art world that has radical ideas but mainly a “very white and wealthy and privileged” constituency. Like Theaster, he wanted to find a way to engage Omaha in a project that would incorporate race, history and the present.
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Could the Bemis — founded in 1981 as a way to give artists a home — play a role? Could it help develop local but undiscovered talent, especially in northeast Omaha? And could it build bridges between the downtown center, north Omaha and the rest of the city?
Thus began a 1½-year education for Hesse. The Kansas City native held a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the University of Kansas and had done master's degree work at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.
He had founded the Paragraph Gallery in downtown Kansas City, a nonprofit exhibition space that is part of a larger effort to support local artists. He had helped run the Max Protetch Gallery in New York City, a blue-chip commercial gallery in Manhattan that drew widely known international artists. He had written and lectured nationally and been recognized with fellowships and grants.
Theaster, whose work is on display in London, suggested to Hesse that the Bemis look “outside of itself” for answers. In over a dozen trips here, Theaster and Hesse toured, listened and asked questions. They held forums and met with artists and city officials.
The pair landed at Carver Bank, 2414-2416 Lake St. The city had owned it since 2006, when Family Housing moved out.
When approached by Hesse and Theaster, city officials saw potential in the idea and a way to build off their investment in streetscape improvements and nearby property.
The city leased the bank space for a dollar to the Bemis, which is footing the $75,000 renovation cost and plans to pay for operations for three years. After that, Bemis hopes to hand over management.
Certainly no artist should starve here. Patricia “Big Mama” Barron, who runs the Big Mama's soul food restaurant about two miles to the west, will run a sandwich counter inside Carver Bank, open to the public.
Her operation will anchor one of the building's two storefronts. The gallery occupies the other. Artists will work in the back, behind Big Mama's sandwich shop.
The renovation work began last summer, led by sculptor Sean Ward, who works with recycled materials.
Apprentices have included teenagers working with the anti-gang nonprofit group Impact One. They helped with demolition of the space over the summer and pounded nails out of old studs that have been reused. North High students spent a day off school putting up insulation.
In coming weeks, the space will open to the public.
“It was at one point a source of pride to its community,” Hesse said. “Why shouldn't it return to that?”
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Carver Bank, artists-in-residence
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Explores artistic potential of trash and recyclable materials. Has exhibited internationally and been featured in national publications. Received 2010 Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award from International Sculpture Center. Bachelor of fine arts degree, University of Nebraska at Omaha 2007; master of fine art degree, University of Minnesota 2011. From Bellevue.
Musician-visual artist-recording artist-record producer-poet
Multi-instrumentalist, bassist in prominent Omaha-based bands. Current musical projects include InDreama, Rikk Agnew Fiasco, Paddy O'Furniture and Cleemann. Has performed in the United States, Europe and Japan and has appeared with artists such as R.E.M. and the Dead Kennedys. Launched record label, DVH Recordings, and released four titles. Has worked in wardrobe creation and supervision for films including “Lovely, Still.” From Omaha.
Portia Vivienne Love
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