February 11, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Are those balloons?” the instructor asks a young girl dressed warmly in pink sweatpants and a purple sweatshirt. The girl looks up and nods enthusiastically before returning to her drawing.

No, it’s not a school day. It’s Saturday at The Union For Contemporary Art, but the youth program is in full swing—just as it is every Saturday.

Established in 2011, The Union for Contemporary Art, located just south of 24th and Lake streets, was founded to provide opportunities to local artists and connect North Omaha youth to the arts. Founder Brigitte McQueen Shew says that the non-profit arts organization was badly needed to not only provide opportunities for artists, but to bridge gaps in the community.

Ending up here on a whim in 2001, McQueen Shew decided to move to Seattle not long after. Having come to Omaha after living in New York City, she says the divide between North Omaha and the rest of the city was overwhelming to her. But, eventually, she moved back. “I realized running away from that issue wasn’t the right thing to do. That’s something you fight against, it isn’t something you let drive you away,” she says.

A journalist, McQueen Shew had no experience in the world of non-profits. However, after she returned, she began to research North Omaha and found herself falling in love with the community. She decided to start an arts organization, not only one for local artists, but also one for area youth who would benefit from mentorship, access to materials and space, connections with professional artists, and programs designed for both them and their parents.

The Union For Contemporary Art is no doubt a place where local artists can find support and visibility—especially through the Studio Fellowship Program—but it’s greatest gift to the community may be the role it plays in offering mentoring to the area’s young people. Many of the other local after-school programs in the area revolve around athletics, McQueen Shew notes. Perhaps too many. “I’ve had parents tell me: ‘My kid can get a scholarship playing basketball but they can’t get a scholarship with art,’” McQueen Shew says. “I really wanted to address that.”

She says that while she doesn’t expect that every child who comes through the mentorship program will go on to be an artist, it still matters, she says, to immerse North Omaha youth in art. “It’s part of our everyday—from graffiti on buildings to the ways we dress ourselves,” she says. “To know art is to better know the world around you.”

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