January 12, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Scholar, lawyer, professor, arts administrator, university dean. David Thompson has had all these professional titles, but he’s impossible to pin down with a simple job description.

Although he took the helm at KANEKO in July as executive director, it’s unlikely this position will similarly define or limit what he does. That’s because Thompson, who grew up in Bellevue, is a man driven by intellectual curiosity, academic rigor, and a constant desire to learn. This is evident in everything he has accomplished.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, he earned a master’s degree in literature and Victorian Studies at Oxford University before receiving a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from Northwestern University. As disparate as these fields may seem, each enhanced the other and strengthened Thompson’s ability to work across unrelated disciplines.

“I enjoy exercising different skills,” he explains. “I love the back and forth between practical applications and creative ideas. There are so many ways to make an impact. I find it invigorating.”

His career trajectory likewise allowed him to engage in dynamic back-and-forths.

After attaining his law degree, he joined Sachnoff & Weaver in Chicago, where he practiced securities and intellectual property law. He soon realized that his interests were in the nonprofit world, and in 2004 he became Associate Director of Gift Planning at the famed University of Chicago, where he learned about the inner workings of successful cultural organizations. Pivotal in Thompson’s professional development, however, was his subsequent position as Associate Dean for Planning & Programs in the school’s Humanities Division.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” he recalls. One of his most impressive accomplishments was his role in the creation of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, which opened last year. “I was on the steering committee for a $100-million interdisciplinary facility,” says Thompson. “It was one of the most exciting projects of my career.”

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In 2008, Thompson broadened his experience by serving as Director of Development & Strategic Initiatives at Chicago-Kent College of Law before becoming a consultant specializing in assisting non- and for-profit organizations with integrated approaches to strategic planning and resource development.

Throughout each of these transitions, Thompson remained engaged with the community. He regularly taught students of all ages, participated in public discussions on such topics as the arts and environmental sustainability, and served on several boards, including the National Public Housing Museum, 3Arts, and the Resource Center. Through all these experiences, he developed a unique expertise that makes it possible to pull together multiple skills in law, business, art, strategic planning, and operations.

Despite living outside Nebraska for almost three decades, Thompson maintained close ties, and in March he returned to assist his family, which still lives in Bellevue.

Serendipitously, KANEKO, which is dedicated to exploring the creative process, was hiring a new executive director. Thompson sought out the job description and found it meshed with his professional interests. “My background is automatically interdisciplinary,” he says. “I’m interested in everything from how to revitalize neighborhoods to how the brain works.”

Thompson’s ability to think broadly was compelling to KANEKO. Board members Robert and Polina Schlott note how impressed the organization was with his background. “We wanted someone who would be a perfect fit,” explains Polina. “There are so many facets involved in being an executive director of a creative foundation. You need business skills and an understanding of creativity—not to mention academic experience. It’s difficult to find that all in one person.”

Bob agrees. “That’s why David’s an awfully good fit. He can fulfill a variety of different tasks, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.”

Adam Price, who became the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art’s new executive director last March, also began his career as an attorney and knows how a background outside the arts can contribute to strengthening an arts institution.

“Our backgrounds give us different approaches,” he observes. “They are different, and that can be exciting. I think it’s great for KANEKO and great for the cultural scene.”

Thompson is also looking forward to contributing to that scene. “I feel fortunate that KANEKO is still small enough that I can be involved in areas such as fundraising and curatorial programs,” he says.

Fundraising comprises one of his first major duties and presents the exciting challenge of dramatically transforming the organization. He is overseeing KANEKO’s capital campaign, which will add a 20-foot-wide atrium across its front entrance and extend the 30,000-square-foot facility by another 5,500. This, says Thompson, will help make KANEKO a major cultural center in Omaha. “We will provide a better sense of the organization as a vital part of the community,” he observes. “There are so many ideas that come into play here. I see us becoming involved in areas we’ve maybe not been before and thinking about our role in the community in a new way.”

The opportunity to accomplish these goals has come at precisely the right moment for Thompson. He turned 50 last August, an age that for him is highly symbolic.

“I have a strong desire to reach a kind of professional peak during this decade,” he explains, “and to feel like I am having a meaningful, positive impact on the organization that employs me and on my community.”

The writer is the Communications Manager for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.