North Omaha’s The Union seeks to unite
August 22nd, 2012
Omaha, NE – We continue our series on the growing arts scene in North Omaha today with a closer look at a community-based art project planned for the area. One of Omahaâ€™s newest arts organizations is looking to make a new home in one of the neighborhoodâ€™s most historic buildings.
â€œSo this is our building,â€ laughed Brigitte McQueen, executive director of the Union for Contemporary Art. â€œI love coming here.â€ A transplant from New York, McQueen was standing in one of Omahaâ€™s most historically-notable buildings. The Fair Deals CafÃ© was known, during the civil rights era, as the Black City Hall. But today, itâ€™s in disrepair.
â€œThe first time that I came in to the building, it was like the restaurant had closed and theyâ€™d just walked away,â€ McQueen said. â€œSo there was food in the kitchen, there were just piles of like furniture and service ware. It was crazy in here!â€
The Fair Deals CafÃ© closed in the early 2000s and has since been vacant. Thatâ€™s a common story among many of the buildings along North Omahaâ€™s main corridor on 24th Street. But McQueen is part of a collaborative effort to bring the old neighborhood back, working from the ground up.
McQueen came to North Omaha from the Bemis Underground, where she led a reset of the Bemis Centerâ€™s underground space to exhibit local artists. Then, she decided to combine her love for supporting artists with her passion for uniting a racially-segregated community. North Omaha is predominantly African American and sees relatively little traffic from the greater cityâ€™s white population. McQueen said she realized that tradition had been passed on through generations.
â€œSo your grandparents never went to North Omaha because someone told them not to, and your parents never went to North Omaha, so you donâ€™t go to North Omaha and your kids donâ€™t go to North Omaha,â€ she said. â€œAnd it just keeps spiraling.â€
â€œSo it really has been amazing to invite people to the Union,â€ she added, â€œand to have them stand on North 24th street and realize itâ€™s really beautiful over here, and itâ€™s not what I thought it was, and itâ€™s not what the news told me it was.â€
The Union already has a building just to the west of the Fair Deal CafÃ©, which supports resident artists. Ultimately, McQueen wants to purchase most of the land on the block to create an arts campus, where artists can have cheap access to workshops and equipment. Art needs to be made more accessible, McQueen said, particularly in a poor community where art is often not valued.
â€œIf youâ€™re worried about how rent is going to get paid, and where youâ€™re going to get school supplies fromâ€¦ where youâ€™re going to get food from,â€ she said. â€œTo walk in and say, â€˜I want to talk about the arts and about beauty,â€™ it takes a little while to get people to realize that those things are important and that the arts are accessible.â€
McQueen said sheâ€™s worked to convince residents, including neighborhood kids, that art doesnâ€™t have to be â€œsomething you go to the museum to see.â€
â€œItâ€™s something thatâ€™s on your block,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s something that you do every day when you get dressed, thatâ€™s art.â€
Making art accessible is one of the reasons McQueen plans to keep the familiar feel of the Fair Deals CafÃ© when the Union sets up its gallery, hopefully next summer. Sheâ€™ll keep the old lunch counter and stools and serve coffee and pie. â€œItâ€™s a huge project but just an important one,â€ she said. â€œI couldnâ€™t think of a more beautiful gallery space.â€
â€œI know itâ€™s a little hard to see right now,â€ she said with a laugh. â€œBut itâ€™s going to be amazing.â€
Our series on the burgeoning arts scene in North Omaha continues below:
Comments are closed.