“I think there’s something about sharing a meal together that gets rid of a lot of nonsense,” says Brigitte McQueen, director of The Union for Contemporary Arts. “Those conversations are what bring us together. It levels the playing field.”
In late January, The Union, an organization that provides studio fellowship programs for six months at a time, hosted its first monthly Kith dinner. It was an informal potluck shared by artists, local residents, and perfect strangers, heralded by nothing much more than a Facebook event. Why would a group like that come together at 24th and Burdette in a simple ranch building usually dedicated to the arts?
“The arts have not always been a conversation in North Omaha,” McQueen says. “A lot of the people who live in this area don’t think art is for black people or that black people make art. And I get why those thoughts are held, because you don’t really see it. Why would you go out of your way to engage with it? You change that,” she adds, “by making artists more visible in the community.”
When McQueen first posted the invitation on Facebook for a free community potluck at The Union, each of the 30 spots were spoken for within two hours. When she mentioned it later in The Union’s newsletter, people asked, “Can we just come?” So McQueen eked out space for 50 people around the Union’s common room. “I worked that space in a way I didn’t even know was possible,” she says a touch proudly.
The artists in residence had their studios open, so during the cocktail hour, guests milled around. The food was all on one table, beautifully set with flowers and china. Old R&B music played in the background. The gathering began around 6 p.m., and it was about 9:30 p.m. when the last person left.
The first Kith dinner yielded such beauties as Thai fish curry and Italian sausage lentil stew. McQueen, who studied at a pastry school, made a chocolate stout cake. Tim Shew, her husband and a chef at La Buvette, made a five-cheese mac-and-cheese casserole with toasted breadcrumbs on top. “People bring their A-game,” McQueen adds, still obviously impressed. “This one woman showed up with these cupcakes, and everyone was like, ‘Where’d you buy them?’, and she said, ‘Oh no, I made them.’ They were these caramel toffee…amazing. Beautifully done.” One couple brought a bottle of Bailey’s for the coffee at the end of the night.
Karin Campbell, curator of contemporary art at the Joslyn Art Museum, says, “I remember sitting in The Union’s main room pondering the fact that maintaining a community is really not rocket science. All it takes is a little bit of willingness to leave the house. It’s refreshing to sit at a table with living, breathing human beings.” Also, she confessed, there were Samoa cupcakes. “Mind. Blown.”
With the summer weather, there will be barbecues and outdoor movie nights. Hours will switch up from brunches to late cocktail parties and back again in order to make Kith open to every schedule.
“I think there’s something about sharing a meal together that gets rid of a lot of nonsense. Those conversations are what bring us together.” – Brigitte McQueen
Whatever the theme, whatever the time, the gatherings have only two rules: Everyone brings something to share, and you don’t sit next to someone you know. There are no cliques, no circles. Everyone interacts with everyone else. “It’s not just a bunch of artists sitting in this pocket,” McQueen says. “The conversation starts out being about art, but it ends up being about, say, politics.” Or films. Or food. Or about what it will take to make North Omaha thrive again.
“The things that separate us,” McQueen says with emphasis, “are stupid. And they are stupid things that have been in place for generations.” With Kith, she’s inviting residents of the area to interact with people who might be coming into North Omaha for the first time in a setting that guests can’t help but associate with comfort, coziness, and conversation.
Artist in residence Victoria Hoyt sums up the appeal of Kith: “When you sit down for a meal, you talk about things you wouldn’t standing up in a gallery or chatting in a bar. You can go beyond small talk and make meaningful connections.”