September 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Omaha Creative Institute (OCI) was founded in 2008, staff converted a used truck and horse trailer into a mobile art vehicle as a way to bring creativity to neighborhood festivals, parades, and other community events. Whether at Dundee Days or South Omaha’s Cinco de Mayo parade, OCI led workshops and provided sidewalk chalk to kids with the goal of making it possible for people from all walks of life to experience creativity firsthand.

Fast forward five years, and the organization moved far beyond the horse trailer. During summer 2013, OCI installed 10 pianos designed by local artists around town and invited people to play, listen to, or just view the musical instruments as interactive pieces of art. It also scheduled special events, including a performance by Ballet Nebraska and a sing-along organized by Joslyn Art Museum to bring added art experiences to the public. The project was such a success that Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards recognized OCI with its Best Public Art award for that year.

In March we caught up with Susan Thomas, who was in the last weeks of her tenure as executive director, and Emily Moody, just about to undertake hers, to gather insights into an organization that became an integral part of enriching communities throughout Omaha.

Thomas explains why there is a need for the institute, even in a city that already offers a fairly diverse selection of visual and performing arts. “There was a perceived gap in having art available to a broader community.

“Omaha Creative Institute was founded to make art more open and accessible to everyone,” she continues. “We are more about building an audience for the arts and getting people who don’t typically participate in the arts to support them. We connect with all kinds of people.”

One of the ways OCI links with the community is by collaborating with other organizations, especially those not typically associated with the arts. In 2012 it worked with Metro Transit for “Conversations on a Bus,” in which two photographers rode buses throughout the metro area, interviewing and photographing riders. It documented encounters and brought art directly to a community usually not involved with the city’s creative offerings. “It introduced art to a whole new population,” says Thomas.

Last year OCI introduced artists to a community with which they’re often not familiar: the business one. Artist INC Live Omaha provided professional development to 22 artists as a way to empower them to take control of their careers and earn a living from their art. “Even though this seems like a different mission, the program really comes full circle for Omaha Creative Institute,” observes Moody. “It builds a public arts audience by supporting the artists who create.”

As OCI moves forward, both women are excited with how the organization will continue bringing arts programming directly to the public. “We make wonderful connections in the community,” Thomas philosophized. “I think that’s one of our great strengths.”

Moody agrees. “Everyone can relate to the arts in some way. It’s so important. I’m very fortunate to play a part in that.”

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