“Carver Bank” project finds potential in North Omaha “gems”

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August 23rd, 2012

Omaha, NE – In the final installment of our series on the growing arts scene in North Omaha, we take a look at a renovation project that’s off the drawing board, fully funded and officially under construction.

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Yards away from the intersection of 24th and Lake Streets in North Omaha sits a quaint business front; its the cornerstone of a small strip of other quaint, vacant store fronts.

Carver Savings and Loan Assoc. Building

Carver Savings and Loan Assoc. opened in 1944, was the first African-American owned bank in Omaha. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Opened in 1944, the Carver Savings and Loan Association was the first African-American owned bank in Omaha. The landmark bank, whose name is still etched above the entryway, gave way to other businesses over the years before eventually sitting unused.

It’s now a renovation project under the umbrella of an ongoing arts revival effort in North Omaha. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art has teamed up with Chicago urban planner and artist Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation to create a space that serves North Omaha artists and residents alike. They’ve called it the “Carver Bank.”

Gates specializes in rehabbing aging spaces and transforming them into usable cultural centers within struggling neighborhoods. Hesse McGraw of the Bemis Center is the head curator for the project. “So in Theaster’s words, this is about creating a space of ‘urban ecstasy,’” said McGraw. “Or finding the kind of hidden gems that already exist here and just highlighting them.”

Theaster Gates

Chicago urban planner and artist Theaster Gates. (Photo credit Chris Machian)

Omaha is a greatly segregated city, and North Omaha is home to some of the poorest residents. The issues of race and class play a heavy role in Gates’ work. McGraw said after a series of public meetings, Bemis and Gates decided upon the details of the project.

“We did not predetermine what the project would be,” McGraw said. “We started by asking artists that lived in the neighborhood what their current working conditions were, what their needs were, where they were at in their careers, and how could vacant space help, and how could a project of this scale help serve those needs.”

The building will house a few studio spaces, a modest-sized art gallery, an administrative area, a public terrace, and a miniature Big Mama’s Kitchen. Big Mama’s is a North Omaha staple, and will serve 15 kinds of sandwiches at its new, expanded location.

McGraw said nearly all the materials being put back into the space are either original to the Carver building or have been re-purposed. Those include materials such as toilets, sinks, slate chalkboards and refurbished wood flooring from an old school gymnasium in Iowa. The space, despite its current rough interior, feels intimate, creative and promising.

Carver Project

Looking towards Lake Street, the building is stripped to its foundation but will house studio spaces, a gallery and a small Big Mama’s Kitchen. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

McGraw said sometimes artists are “intense pragmatists” who can best help solve urban problems. “So in this case, if the problem was a vacant building, you give it to some artists and something really wonderful is imagined.”

McGraw said it’s Gates’ philosophy that empty and seemingly helpless lots and buildings don’t reflect their true potential.

“Often in neighborhoods where capital has left, value remains,” he said. “So it’s both value in terms of buildings, but also value in terms of cultural production, in terms of artist practices, in terms of the musician who may be living a couple blocks away.”

The project has already been fully funded by donors and McGraw said a completion date, though admittedly ambitious, has been tentatively set for October 1.

Read more from our series on North Omaha’s growing arts scene:

North Omaha’s history drives arts “renaissance”

Injecting art makes dollars and cents for North Omaha

North Omaha’s The Union seeks to unite

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