Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter magazine.
At the W. Dale Clark main Omaha Public Library branch, people can check out books, use the Internet, take classes, and research government documents, along with a host of other collection-based activities. And in the Michael Phipps Gallery, they can also view artwork by a wide-range of Omaha artists whose work is by turns beautiful, challenging, provocative, and always engaging.
While the gallery has long offered exhibitions, they haven’t had the same high profile as the library’s other offerings—until, that is, Alex Priest, a 27-year-old independent curator, volunteered his services.
Despite having curated exhibitions featuring works by such famed artists as Josef Albers, Grant Wood, and Robert Rauschenberg, Priest is committed to making the general public feel comfortable viewing them, whether those pieces are traditional landscapes or avant-garde installations. “As a curator, I’m not asking people to spend two hours looking at art work, just two seconds more than usual so they can look a little closer,” he emphasized.
Inspired by the way his public library’s offerings influenced and inspired him while growing up in Iowa, Priest wanted to give back by volunteering his services to the Michael Phipps Gallery. One of his primary goals was to make the space an integral part of the library, not a separate area unto itself. “To me the library is about accessing information in a broad context,” Priest explained. “It’s so important for aggregating information. What I really wanted to do is make the gallery another place to do that.”
To that end, the library added comfortable seating, reading tables, and warm lighting to encourage people to spend time in the space, irrespective if they’re reading a good book, having quiet conversations, or simply viewing the artworks. “This provides a link between the gallery and the library,” Priest said.
The exhibitions, of course, have played a key role in that link. Last July’s Social Studies by artist Laura Carlson served as both an exhibition as well as a platform for collaborative dialogue workshops with the public. It was the kind of exhibition that couldn’t have taken place in a traditional gallery setting, but one that meshed perfectly with the library and its public programming.
Patrons have responded enthusiastically. “Alex has changed the whole feel, and people are noticing,” said Linda Trout, the library’s community outreach and partnership manager. “It’s so exciting. It’s a better atmosphere for reading, talking and visiting. People love the ability to go, sit, and enjoy the space.”
For Priest, this means his curating has been a success. “This is a huge gallery in a major public space,” he noted. “This is a way to access the assets of the library and a way to facilitate dialogues through art.”