April 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The socio-economic fabric of Omaha makes a complicated tapestry of diverse skeins intertwining in various degrees of organic, from architectural masterpieces to working-class family neighborhoods converging around art from the street to the Bemis. Southwest of the 11-Worth Cafe is an apartment that’s not just a home for one man and his toddler, but also to a healthy cross-section of Omaha artists.

Hugo Novelo is an Omaha art lover. For two years, he’s been turning his apartment into a gallery of ever-increasing legitimacy. It began as a barter on the cusp where street artists live. 

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“I started collecting art about eight years ago,” Novelo says from his perch in the kitchen where art is made as often as food. “An artist friend got kicked out of his place after a break-up and asked me to help him move. I gathered up all his stuff, but there was no way I could mail all his art. It would have cost a fortune. So I gave him 70 bucks for about five pieces and we called it even. That’s how my collection started. Now, I meet a new artist every week and I’ve got about 325 pieces of local, Omaha artwork.”

Novelo says he began feeling guilty for keeping so much art to himself and decided, in true Omaha style, to collaborate. With the help of his salon full of experienced artists, he began selling a few pieces a week through a Facebook store, lending out art and doing the occasional pop-up. Meanwhile, he encourages young artists, buying supplies in exchange for finished art or part of the profit. It all happened organically. Now when the neighborhood skate kids stop by to look at the art, they meet a weird artist or two, and think about creating.

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Depending on mood and occasion, 50 to 60 artists live on Novelo’s walls. The majority of works are stored in the basement, which is why Novelo does not advertise the address. One has to know Hugo, contact him through social media or be delivered by a mutual friend to see what he has in the kitchen and around the enormous mural by artists Stephen Kavanaugh as well as norm4eva and Andy Garlock, the muralists responsible for the makeover of Leo’s Diner. Other noted Omaha talents represented are Randi Hunter, Très Johnson, and Anthony Brown.

Novelo’s face lights up talking about art because for him it’s not just about commerce or a pretty picture. Hugo’s pieces are vibrant, personal and plentiful, but they are—more often than not—made by his friends.

Bart Vargas, respected painter and UNO art educator, reviewed Novelo’s collection recently and, after touring the vaunted basement, says: “Novelo is a passionate and active local art collector snatching up works from many of the areas, unknown, outsider, and up-and-coming street artists,” Vargas says. “I was surprised to find early gems from regional artists Stephen Kavanaugh, Reginald LeFlore, OaKley, Joel Elia Damon, and Gerard Pefung. I predict it will be interesting to watch this collection develop, as these artist’s careers evolve and develop. Who exactly knows what hidden gems Hugo has in his collection?”

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