Within one year of establishing The Union of Contemporary Art in 2011, its founder and executive director, Brigitte McQueen Shew, noticed neighborhood kids arriving unexpectedly at the arts facility on North 24th Street.
The Union didn’t have formal weekend classes at the time. But the kids didn’t mind. They would show up, knock on the door, and ask: “Can we come in to make stuff?”
McQueen Shew was happy to accommodate. “We just started letting them come in and do whatever they wanted,” she says.
The informal weekend sessions grew into the weekly “Art Club” in 2013, and the program continues to grow. Now, on any given Saturday, there are local artists helping out, teaching lessons, and serving as mentors.
“It really started organically, and the majority of the kids involved in the program still walk to the building,” McQueen Shew says of the free program for youths who are between the ages of 6 and 13, living in North Omaha. Art Club takes place every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The focus of each Art Club session depends on the artist(s) leading the group. McQueen Shew says they try to have a ceramic artist instructor available, “because the kids love working with clay.”
Sometimes the artistic medium is painting or printmaking, and they have also done yoga with the kids. Meanwhile, urban agriculture is an important aspect of Art Club every week.
“We’re located in one of the largest food deserts in the state of Nebraska,” she says, referring to North Omaha’s dearth of affordable, fresh, and healthy food. “We have a garden that basically belongs to the community, but the kids are responsible for it. They help us plant, maintain it, and during the summer when they cook lunches for each other, a lot of the produce come from the garden.”
Art and North Omaha
Within the past year, McQueen Shew has been trying to connect Art Club lessons with African-American art history. Her focus emerged from a guest lecture she gave at Sacred Heart School in North Omaha.
“I started the presentation by asking, ‘Who likes art?’” McQueen Shew says. “Everyone raised their hands. Then, I asked if anyone could name a famous artist, and I got lots of ‘Picassos.’ And then, I asked them they could name a famous African-American artist, and it was like crickets.”
During the next half hour of her presentation, she showed a steady stream of African-American artwork on the projector. At the end of her talk, she asked again, “How many of you can name an African-American artist?” All hands went up.
Students were excited to learn about the important cultural and artistic contributions made by African-Americans. McQueen Shew says making the connection is important.
“It’s not really a conversation that we have in North Omaha,” she says. “Most after school programs focus on sports, which is why we really want to do this. There’s just no cultural outlet for kids living in the community. So, we work around a lot of art history ideas because I think it’s really important for the children and their families to connect themselves to the conversations.”
Art Club, and the rest of The Union’s youth outreach programming, strives to achieve The Union’s ultimate goal: to “unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change.” The youth outreach programs build on The Union’s other efforts to provide studio space and facilitate exhibitions for contemporary artists in Omaha.
The Union has gradually expanded its youth outreach over the past few years. Youth programs are free; however, most are directed at serving North Omaha residents living east of 72nd St., west of the Missouri River, south of Interstate 680, and north of Cuming Street or Northwest Radial Highway.
Over the summer, activities included a new family program on Thursday nights, various art workshops, and a summer camp for kids. The family night program could become a regular feature at The Union in the future.
For the past two years, The Union has offered “Teen Art Night” every Friday. Teen Art Night began as a collaboration with Catholic Charities for at-risk youth. The teen night is now geared towards all teens—ages 13 through 19—offering open access to The Union’s studio space, darkroom, print shop, ceramic studio, paints, drawing materials, and assorted art supplies every Friday from 5-8 p.m.
“We decided to open it up and let other teens come in, so that’s not open just for North Omaha, but also to everyone from the greater Omaha area,” McQueen Shew says. The summer family night was also open to residents of the larger metropolitan area.
Changes are on the horizon for The Union. The non-profit space will relocate to the nearby Blue Lion building in the fall. The larger space will allow The Union to accommodate even more youths, instructors, and families.
In January, The Union is planning to launch a new after-school arts program for North Omaha youth called “Union After School.” They are currently accepting participant registration for the program.
“We are also adding an element to the programs that we do with the kids when we move to the new building, and that’s theater,” McQueen Shew says, noting the hiring of Denis Chapman from Omaha Community Playhouse. “We’ll have a youth theater ensemble that will perform productions throughout the year.”
The Union’s move into the renovated Blue Lion building corresponds with a growing number of community developments in the vicinity of North 24th and 30th streets. McQueen Shew is excited to play her part in the area’s revitalization.
“There is so much happening in the community right now,” she says. “It’s a pretty amazing time.”
Visit u-ca.org/youth-outreach for more information. FamilyGuide