Tag Archives: Nebraska Arts Council

Jennifer Castello

May 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Thirty-year-old Jennifer Castello lives by a simple philosophy: “Art is power.” As a writer, educator, and actor, the Omaha native has tapped into all areas of her deep imagination to carve out her path. She unequivocally believes creativity was put here to bring out a person’s voice, and that’s exactly what she’s doing.

“I think art has worked best when someone isn’t being listened to, then grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck, and through art that person says, ‘Shut up and look,’” she says. “When I’m teaching, it’s not about me. It’s about making sure that at the end of the session, residency, or workshop, the students are equipped to express themselves—be it in a story, in a song, or just in everyday life. Art is self-advocacy. Art is power. Art is resistance.”

Castello began her writing career at the ripe age of 4, when her grandmother discovered how often she was coming up with original stories.

“She pulled out a stack of papers, stapled them together, and told me to make a book,” she recalls. “The pride she took in the stories I told her made me feel like it was something special to be a writer. She was a teacher, and it was also through her and that pride that I realized I wanted to be a teacher, and make some other kid feel just as special as she made me feel.”

At 18 years old, Castello scored her first teaching job, participating in the Teacher Academy Project program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and eventually got her teaching license. Now, she freelances at a variety of local organizations, including the Omaha Community Playhouse. 

“I go out into schools and community spaces and engage students in creating something,” she explains. “If that’s creating a clever way to win a drama game, learning how to make their own characters with makeup on their faces, or write their very own script, that’s where my heart is. When I was a kid in Omaha, teachers reached out to me and taught me that my brain had a purpose and a worth, and I’m always trying to pay it forward.”

In terms of her acting, Castello credits her father.

“He signed me up for a class at the Emmy Gifford Theatre,” she says. “Then when the Emmy Gifford turned into The Rose, he made me audition for one of the main stage plays and I got in. It was a community for me to hold onto when things got rough, and I’ll forever be grateful for that community.“

As an author, the Central High School grad was compelled to write The Messiah of Howard Street when she was still an undergrad at DePaul University in Chicago. It was inspired by the colorful characters that have become a staple of the Old Market district.

“I had read My Antonia in my American English class,” she explains. “This wasn’t the first time I read it, I’d read it at Central High my junior year of high school. But comparing and contrasting a Chicago classroom to an Omaha classroom, I realized how fantasized Nebraska is in the minds of people who don’t live here. I mean, there are some obvious stereotypes we’ve all heard, but also the idea that there are rolling fields, and peace, and nature, and all that, it was just weird.”

Like so many other Central High teenagers, the Old Market was Castello’s meeting spot during adolescence. But over the years, she had many other experiences on and around Howard Street that helped shape her life.

“One of my first tastes of freedom was walking down to the Old Market and going to all the shops, getting Ted & Wally’s, and eating way too much spaghetti. Mom would take me to Little King before a dance recital, my best friends held my 18th birthday party as Zio’s, I sang and performed there, and I actually had my first date with my husband at Spaghetti Works.”

Armed with a Master of Science in secondary education from UNO and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine, she recently held a one-act festival, finished a semester-long scriptwriting residency at Central High, and has become a member of the Nebraska Arts Council teaching roster. In short, Castello stays busy.

“In undergrad, my professor warned me I might not be able to make a living in the arts,” she says. “But being a teaching artist and an arts educator has been something I truly enjoy. I really appreciate being able to do it every day. I get to help kids play pretend. That’s like…the dream.”


To learn more about Castello’s work, visit jennifercastello.com

This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of Encounter.

Wanderings Of A Wordsmith

May 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Frank S. O’Neal published his first book of poetry in 2010 at age 62. In 2017, the Nebraska Arts Council exhibited his surrealist poetry video (a collaboration between the scribe and cinematographer Jason Fischer) for O’Neal’s poem “I Do Not Use The N-Word.”

The African-American wordsmith uses his craft to actualize activism as a historian and North Omaha resident.

The versifier is also a voyager: “Had I not traveled, I would not be able to write,” O’Neal says.

He started globetrotting in 1968 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. He trained in the medical field and traveled with the Icebreaker Support Section. The seafarer sailed across the North Pole and the South Pole. During the return journey from his cruise to the Antarctic, he and his fellow Coast Guard members were pleased to learn that they would be coming through Rio de Janeiro during the famed Carnival—but Lady Luck was not on their side that night.

“We had to wait,” O’Neal says. “The last night of Carnival, we were sitting there, in Rio, waiting on a ship. By the time we got ashore—it was over. We got them back, though. My commander had us stay there three extra days.”

After his discharge from the Coast Guard in 1974, he worked for Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as an industrial paramedic driving an ambulance from the work sites when an injury or accident was reported.

O’Neal relocated to Omaha in 1978, but not for long. In 1980, he traveled with his then-girlfriend to Dallas, Texas.

“I figured it was a good opportunity,” the lighthearted lyricist says. He found a job with a hospital, and in 1983, he switched careers and began to work in communications installation for Motorola.

He also began to rework himself into a rhapsodist. At age 35, O’Neal began to write as a way to reflect on his experiences. He’d been in and out of relationships, of homes, of cities, and he saw a world that engaged and perplexed him.

“I think he’s a talented writer. He writes with honesty, authenticity, and courage,” says Lisa Pelto, president of Concierge Marketing Inc., the company that has published his books.

In 1990 O’Neal switched from a salaried employee to a contract position at Motorola. After the corporation secured a contract to provide a mobile-communications network in Kuwait, O’Neal joined the team arriving in Kuwait City one week after the U.S.-led military liberation of the Persian Gulf state in early 1991.

“We went through Kuwait…seeing all the broke-down cars, all the tanks, fires,” O’Neal says with a shake of his head. “I thought I was in hell.”

In a scrapbook filled with mementos, a fiery mushroom cloud rises over an oil field on the first page. Other photos in the book show the newly liberated city at its worst…and best.

“That was an experience I needed to have as far as the circle of life,” O’Neal says. “The beauty of working overseas was being able to hear stories from people in other countries.” 

During his time in Kuwait, he toiled 12-hour days, setting up the infrastructure to put in a computerized communications system for oil wells. It was a grueling job, but one O’Neal worked with his signature confidence, and not much sleep.

O’Neal’s time in Kuwait enabled him to float further. In 1993, he traveled to Jamaica to be part of the crew creating the infrastructure for a new communications system.

He waxes poetic about embracing the culture, and he picked up the Jamaican patois language within a couple of months.

“It was beautiful being on the island for that long,” O’Neal says. “You can take seeds of any kind, and within the germination period the plant will grow. I’ve never seen soil so fertile.”

He now considers Jamaica his second home. He contentedly adventured through the U.S. on communications assignments until 2006, when he returned to Omaha to help his ailing parents. He spent time with his father, Frank Seavron O’Neal, in the last three weeks of his father’s life gathering family history, listening to stories he never heard before…and garnering advice that would impact his life.

“Frank Sandy, finish it,” he says, recalling his father’s advice (both men had the middle initial “S.”). O’Neal had shown his father a collection of poems that would eventually appear in his first book of poetry.

He took his father’s advice. Three years later, O’Neal’s first book came out in print, and he began reading at poetry engagements, meandering the Omaha metro. He has assembled four anthologies, is regularly petitioned to perform, and he could not be happier.

“He has a voice that is worth listening to,” says Pelto, his publisher who is white. “Initially, when I read the poems, I thought it was a good peek into the life of a black man.”

Each step of O’Neal’s story reads like a chapter in a book.

“This has been a beautiful journey,” he says. “I enjoy my life to the fullest, because every bit of my life has had a purpose and a meaning to it.” 


Visit Frank O’Neal’s Facebook page, @franksoneal, for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Larry Ferguson

August 6, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Berkshire Hathaway’s National Indemnity Company was searching for someone to memorialize its home office of more than 65 years before they relocated, they called upon Omaha artist and photographer Larry Ferguson.

“It’s what I do all the time. This is the kind of thing that I’m always involved in,” he says. For the past 35 years, Ferguson has documented the evolution of the cultural and industrial landscape of Omaha as it rapidly blooms.

“That’s just one of those things that I’m really known for—being able to make incredible documents that have an aesthetic sense about them, so that people want to have them. Not just for the information that’s there, but also for the aesthetics that are involved,” Ferguson says.

Ferguson learned that hard work is its own reward from his dad, during his childhood on the family farm near Alliance. His vast body of work is evidence of that. Whether documenting the weddings of Omaha’s elite or being commissioned by the Joslyn to visually capture priceless works of art, his photographic expertise is unrivaled.

He is chairman of the Omaha Public Art Commission, founded the group Public Art Omaha, and spent 10 years working with the Nebraska Arts Council’s artists-in-residence program. He also served as project director on a commission that performed preservation work on the Bostwick-Frohardt photography collection at The Durham Museum.

Ferguson specializes in fine art, commercial art, and social documentation. He describes his take-charge approach to those worlds as “intricately intertwined.” He is also trained in drawing, painting, ceramics, and sculpture. “I love art,” he says.

For two months Ferguson methodically shot every square inch of National Indemnity’s property, located on Harney Street near Mutual of Omaha, working from the outside before the leaves fell and then capturing the interior. He photographed the cafeteria where Berkshire Hathaway held their annual shareholder’s meetings in the 1970s and the tennis courts where former President Jack Ringwalt played.

Where others might see mundane ceiling tiles, Ferguson’s eye finds inspiration for captivating works of photographic art. His rare Cambo Wide camera offers an elongated panoramic format with a two-to-one ratio creating an extremely wide angle not often seen in photography. “For example, this is a little small 10×10 room but I’m able to stand in a corner and photograph almost the entire
room,” he says.

Ferguson’s images convey the values of strength, stability, and integrity on which the insurance company’s founders, Arthur and Jack Ringwalt, built the company. They believed every risk has a proper rate and that risky classes—such as long-haul trucks, taxis, rental cars, and public buses—should not be rejected. In plain language, Ferguson’s black-and-white photos tell the rich story of decades of promise.

“Real art in a work environment changes the workers,” Ferguson says. His photography will decorate the walls of the company’s new office, located in the Omaha World-Herald Building, serving as daily inspiration for the employees and a reminder of the company’s successful history.

Visit fergusonstudio.com for more information. Encounter

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Nancy Beal Meyer

October 26, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When the other little girls in Nancy Beal Meyer’s third grade class were coloring and making crafts, Beal Meyer was begging her mother for an opportunity to learn about art. Not the art from her elementary school classroom, but rather the strokes and techniques behind such Impressionistic artists as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

And lucky for her, her mother said yes.

Finding a teacher would prove the bigger issue. Private art classes for younger children didn’t extend into actual technique and structure of oil painting, and Beal Meyer was yearning for more. The only classes her mother could find were led by Dorothy Ruge, and those were just for high school students. But that didn’t stop Beal Meyer.  She jumped right in and learned alongside students double her age. When Ruge retired five years later, Beal Meyer, at just 14 years old, took matters into her own hands. She found Augustus W. Dunbier, a renowned local German Impressionist painter. But like Ruge, he would only teach adults. He told her that she could observe but couldn’t be an actual student in his class. Following his strict instruction, every Saturday morning, Beal Meyer would set her easel up directly in back of Dunbier and observe every stroke and detail of what he painted. Finally, after seeing her potential, he relented and brought her into the fold, eventually becoming her mentor and ongoing teacher.

Since then, Beal Meyer has spent her lifetime not only painting, but teaching others that art is truly limitless. As an artist-in-residence for Millard Public Schools through a grant from the Nebraska Arts Council and individual schools’ PTA funding, Beal Meyer’s not just teaching the mechanics of art, but also the power of what art can do to your life.

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And it’s amazing how far her reach has spread.

After graduating from The University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BFA as well as K-12 certification in art instruction, Beal Meyer taught after-school art programs to the at-risk youth at Omaha Home for Boys. She knew then that she had found her gift, “it just takes someone helping them to take them where they want to go.”

From helping a student with his scholarship portfolio to design school, to showing them careers in graphic design they never knew existed, Beal Meyer has always been dedicated to helping students see beyond what’s right in front of them. “Art isn’t just about drawing and painting,” she explains. “It’s about career opportunities and seeing what they can do with art.”

Since those early days at the Omaha Home for Boys, Nancy has been an advocate for the power of art programs in elementary-based education programs. “Art is what grounds people, it makes people kind and sane.” She fears where our education system is going with the cutting of art and music programs from the younger-aged school programs. Millard School District has already cut their art programs at the elementary school level and only offers art curriculum by individual classroom teachers. Beal Meyer is able to teach at schools like Sandoz Elementary and Wheeler Elementary because of Nebraska Art Council grants and PTA fundraising. But every year her fate is unknown. “It’s sad,” she explains. “Kids need this. They want to learn.”

That is obvious from the pile of thank-you notes from her most recent students stacked on her table. Each with a message of hope for a world Beal Meyer opened up to them. A hope she’s happy to give. “They need someone telling them that they can do it.”

And it’s not just for them. “This work in the schools is my heart. These kids are my heart. I want the world to see that they deserve more.” And she’s doing just that—one artist at a time.

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Marian Fey

December 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Marian Fey moved around a lot as a kid. “I always say my mom’s a gypsy,” she says with a laugh.

But wherever she landed, one thing remained constant: dance.

“I’ve been dancing my whole life,” Fey says from her office Downtown. But it was sometime around middle school that dance crossed the line from “I don’t want to go,” she recalls, “to how many times a week can I go? It’s not enough.” By the time she was in high school, Fey danced four days a week and taught for another two. She danced all the way through college and then taught dance and choreography at the Omaha Academy of Ballet after she and her husband settled in Omaha. “I’ve had that connection my entire life to the arts,” she says. “I know personally the impact that arts education had on me and the engagement it caused me and my family to have towards education.”

Today, Fey is president of the Omaha Public Schools Board and heads the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, a fundraising position she assumed in May after leading the Nebraska Arts Council for a year. Before that, Fey founded The Artery, a small nonprofit that brought the New York-based Dancing Classrooms to Omaha. As she expands her scope, Fey hopes to provide opportunities for more children to get involved in the arts—inspiring their passions and encouraging them to engage in their education.

“There’s such a growing body of evidence about the impact that arts education can have on student achievement,” she says. Other than increasing engagement and parental involvement, sometimes the arts simply provide motivation, she says. “I think a lot of kids—and I wasn’t any different—need a reason some mornings to get up and go to school.” That goes for her kids, too. “For at least three of our children,” she says, “if they hadn’t had music to look forward to everyday at school, it could have been a tough sell getting them up and going.”

Fey’s interest in her children’s education led her to run for a seat on the OPS board in 2011, where she advocates for more arts education. Her tenure has been consumed by searches for superintendents and board structure changes. But despite the setbacks, she says she’s proud “OPS has never abandoned the arts.”

Add her role as elected official to fundraiser, and Fey’s transition from participant and teacher to behind-the-scenes mover and shaker is complete. At the Cultural Endowment, Fey travels around the state building relationships with senators and donors, and she manages a private fund that should reach $10 million (with its public match) by 2016. The fund provides grants to arts and humanities organizations around the state, impacting thousands of Nebraska kids.

It’s a new role, but Fey says she still feels like a teacher articulating ideas and concepts—just to a broader audience. And the passion that stirred her as a child—her reason to get up every morning—will never stand down.

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Mary Carrick

July 12, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If the late soul master James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then singer Mary Carrick is Omaha’s hardest working woman in entertainment.

When the Nebraska Arts Council touring artist isn’t performing her own cabaret act, she’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus or acting in a musical theater production. She also does special events like the Omaha Press Club Show and Omaha Creative Institute Spring Fling.

In addition to her rehearsals and vocal exercises she attends cabaret workshops. All this comes on top of working a full-time marketing job, being married and raising two small children. Yet she’s made time to create her debut CD, Let’s Fly, with artistic producer and arranger J. Gawf, a pianist whose day job finds him serving as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.

The album, available on iTunes. Amazon.com and CD Baby, showcases Carrick’s big voice, wide range, and eclectic tastes. The 10 tracks about love and desire include the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Barry Manilow’s bath-houser “Man Wanted,” and the Jon Mitchell hit “Both Sides Now.” There’s even Leonard Cohen’s edgy “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

The project’s an intriguing collaboration between a versatile singer deeply rooted in the Great American Songbook and a multifaceted musician immersed in opera. Carrick, who can sing anything, has a voice with operatic qualities, and Gawf, who can play anything, is well-versed in popular music. He’s also Carrick’s primary vocal coach and the two have developed an aesthetic kinship and personal friendship.

Gawf has worked with world-class singers and is a great admirer of Carrick’s vocal instrument.

“It’s crystalline clear, it’s shiny, it’s got shimmer,” he says. “She has such a range to go from the high register, which I think is a beautiful part of her voice, to the low register.”

Then there’s what Carrick can do with a song.

“Well, she’s a storyteller, number one,” he says. “She comes from a theater background and she can tell a story like nobody’s business.”

Carrick’s found a niche in cabaret performances that often find her teaming with pianist-vocalist Todd Brooks.

“There’s so much artistic freedom in cabaret,” she says. “There’s really no rules. I can program whatever I want. I can do songs that are traditionally sung by men and make them my own. I can infuse myself and my own experiences into the songs. There’s a very intimate connection with the audience that I love very much. I can talk and tell stories throughout my show. I love that audience-to-singer energy that happens in the room. It’s exhilarating.”

She’s been recognized by the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and the Theatre Arts Guild for her cabaret shows as well as productions of her own Broadstreet Theatre Company.

When Carrick broached the concept of her album, Gawf wanted in and says the chance of “doing something I’d never done” appealed to him. “Mary gave me free license.”

The songs on “Let’s Fly” have been covered many times by other artists, but Gawf was intentional in taking a new slant.

“I pride myself on not listening to other artists before I tackle something because I don’t want to get preconceived ideas of how something should be. I like to take the song off the page and then re-imagine it. After we got our arrangements together I listened to what other people did to see where ours fit in, and we’ve got some unique things. Half the fun was coming up with what works for us.”

Carrick feels she’s in good hands with Gawf.

“I put my trust completely in him. It’s just been an awesome match. I think we work in tandem really well. He totally gets me. He can tell when I’m not giving as much as I need to. There was one session where he said, ‘I don’t feel like you’re giving you’re all to me,’ and he was right. I know where he’s at, he knows where I’m at. We can sort of feel where we’re going, where things aren’t working.”

Carrick says she most enjoys “the creative process,” and with the CD she’s pleased to have gone to “a real vulnerable place in being completely true to the material. It’s a scary place to go if you really want to be an honest singer, but I think we achieved that .”

For the album Gawf assembled musicians he’s worked with before, including three Omaha mainstays in percussionist J.B. Ferguson, bass player Mark Haar, and accordion player Kate Williams. Jazz pianist Eric Andries joined the ensemble from his home in Baton Rouge, La.

The CD marked the inaugural project for Dreamtree Recording, a new studio operated by Omaha musician and sound engineer extraordinaire Marty Bierman.

The recording sessions became Gawf’s playground to have the musicians try different rhythms and tempos – adding, subtracting, mixing, matching various sounds.

“It was true experimentation all the way around,” he says. “It was fun to be able to do that, to not take it straight from the page and to work with such great instrumentalists.”

Carrick says the CD was both “a fascinating” and “massive undertaking” that “organically developed.” Don’t be surprised if she and Gawf re-team for a new project.

Follow the singer at marycarrick.com.

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Two Perspectives

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nancy Lepo and Corey Broman are expert draftsmen. Both use the tools of their medium to create precise markings which address color, the movement of light, a sense of direction and shape, and the nuance of mystery, depth, and genesis. She carries her tools in a canvas lunch sack; his require a studio. Lepo uses traditional pen and ink on paper; Broman draws with a diamond wheel on glass.

Both artists’ work will be on view in a dual exhibition at the Nebraska Arts Council’s Fred Simon Gallery this summer. NAC staff, who determine the exhibition schedule, found the work of both applicants compelling and promising interplay.

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Broman has been blowing glass for about 15 years, following a spark lit when he was a child on vacation, “watching an old man crafting a glowing ball of molten glass.” That spark was reignited by an exhibition of Chihuly glass at Joslyn Art Museum. Finding a glass studio in the phone book, he went immediately to Crystal Forge (hotshopsartcenter.com/crystal) and knew with certainty that “that’s what I want to do.” For months he watched, took classes, and assisted. Owner Ed Fennell encouraged him. “He referred me to Hastings College,” says Broman. “He gave me hope.”

Today, Broman is a full-time glassblower with a growing online business, Corey Broman Glass. In contrast to most studios, where a master works with a team of specialized assistants, he works solo, adapting and improvising his unique system of handling glass heated to 2,000°F. Molten glass is a thick, viscous material, constantly changing temperature and plasticity. This calls for a calculated choreography of gathering, blowing, rolling, and swinging a blob of hot glass on a 7- to 10-pound rod. He also does all his own cold work—the design and finishing of cooled glass—switching the emphasis from the physicality of sculpture to the precision of surface detail.

Lepo’s attention seems always to be on a small scale, but one can find infinity in her intimate landscapes. There is the expanse of a Southwest sky, opening over the canyon to our view just as surprisingly as it did to hers. Or sensing in the density of a spinning planet the cold vacuum of the surrounding void. “Drawing,” she says, “is a means of looking at something again for the first time.” And how better to really see than to map a landscape with tiny dots of ink, to define a tree branch or the trace of wind across sand by the proximity of one dot to another?

Lepo’s unconscious apprenticeship as a pen and ink artist began with her exposure to a variety of cultures during her childhood, her curiosity, her wondering. Later, as an engineering technology student, she understood the power of a drawing to convey information. “Looking again” is her impetus to move such utilitarian drawing to a deeper level of engagement. With the simplest of equipment—sketchbook, India ink, pens (the nibs rattling around in a small tea tin), water dish, pencils, an eraser—the self-described “nature-centric” artist can create a sketch whenever her wandering says “pay attention.”20130507_bs_4431-Copy_web

Finishing, then inking the drawing in her studio, Lepo employs pointillist techniques to describe form, light, and movement in detail, using only black ink and the white of the paper. The tonal gradation she achieves via stippling, hatching and cross-hatching, and layering is extraordinary—a picture may take up to 100 hours to complete. Working in her spacious north-facing studio at Hot Shops, her attention articulates the relationship betweenherself and a particular moment and place (whether real or imaginary). Surrounding that focal point, the world expands in scale and scope: Wind and falcon’s cry become the voice of the North Rim, the persona of the Grand Canyon, the panorama of the Southwest. Lepo’s anchor is a tree silhouetted by sunset.

Broman’s studio is an efficiently organized cubicle in a busy industrial plant. In just a few steps, he can reach his three furnaces (furnace, for melting glass; glory hole, for reheating; annealer, for controlled cooling to room temperature), his workstation/bench, a cupboard of supplies, and wall of notes, sketches, and recipes. There’s also a sandblaster, which he can use to create surface effects of layered color or a frosted appearance. Glassblowing is a sequential process, and running three furnaces is expensive, so time in the studio is carefully planned.20130507_bs_4464-Copy_Web

Vista embodies several techniques. Three blown glass pieces are assembled in a custom-welded stand. The diamond wheel was used to make thousands of light-reflecting cuts in the stem, and to engrave the disc with its delicate scene. The graceful leaf was treated with an acid bath for a matte finish.

Like Lepo, Broman appreciates the outdoors. He finds peace in moments of stillness and challenge in the variability of light. Both artists use the language of art to express a unique response that, in turn, informs and enriches viewers and bids us to pay attention. Finding the affinities and distinctions between their work, we learn to see again for the first time.

Nancy Lepo, Drawings/Corey Broman, Glass will be on display at the Fred Simon Gallery, Nebraska Arts Council in the Burlington Building (1004 Farnam St.) from June 24 – July 26, 2013. For more information, visit nebraskaartscouncil.org.

Joan Squires

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Joan Squires was living a cozy life in Arizona where she was president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony. But when Omaha Performing Arts leaders called 10 years ago, she couldn‘t resist the challenge.

OPA wanted her help in operating two theaters in Omaha—the venerable Orpheum and the yet-to-be-built Holland Performing Arts Center. Who could pass up the chance to operate a theater built in 1927 that was undergoing a $10 million renovation? And who wouldn’t want to participate in the building of a $102 million performing arts center in Downtown Omaha?

Squires saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “There was a committed board and key leadership. Also at that time, no one in Omaha was bringing in shows.”

OPA’s new president arrived in 2002 to find a staff of one and a lone computer housed in the offices of Heritage Services; the philanthropic foundation was OPA’s fundraiser. The Holland Performing Arts Center was only a sketch on an architect‘s drawing board. The Orpheum Theater was still owned by the City of Omaha. And few people knew much about OPA. “One of our greatest challenges was branding the institution,” Squires says. “We had to go from not in existence to fully operational in three years.”

Her first action was to help set goals: 1) Assume management of the Orpheum from the city, 2) Prepare a strategic plan for the development of the organizational and administrative structure for OPA, and 3) Participate in construction of the Holland.

“In 2004, we opened Ticket Omaha [a local ticketing service for the arts]. Tickets were on sale six months before the Holland’s first performance in 2005,” Squires says.20130102_bs_8722 copy

A Decade Later

Today, the OPA president has a staff of 90 full- and part-time employees and 500 volunteers. She oversees the 175,000-square-foot Holland Performing Arts Center and the renovated 2,600-seat Orpheum Theater that reopened in 2002. And Omaha Performing Arts now is the largest nonprofit arts organization in Nebraska.

Seventy-five percent of funding is now from earned revenue and 25 percent is from contributions.

Rankings in two industry publications in 2011 gave Omaha bragging rights. The Orpheum was ranked No.1 in Midwest ticket sales by Venues Today and No. 16 worldwide by Pollstar. The Holland was ranked in the top 10 nationally by Venues Today, an impressive ranking for a performing arts center that didn’t exist six years earlier.

“There were those that said Omaha could not support the facility,” remembers John Gottschalk, OPA chairman since its formation in 2000. Squires has oversight of a $18 million operation. “And in six years she has never missed her budget. Never.”

Squires’ success in luring top talent has brought a financial benefit to the area, attracting visitors, creating jobs, and increasing tax revenue. A 2011 survey by University of Nebraska economists concluded that the two theaters had a cumulative economic impact on Douglas County of $128.49 million over five years and a $98.31 million impact on Nebraska.

The widely praised acoustics of the Holland bring out the best of the Omaha Symphony. Broadway shows now seek out the Orpheum. Performances have included Wicked, Jersey Boys and Disney’s® Lion King, which returns in March.

Check Squires’ iPhone and you’ll find an eclectic collection of music. But Broadway tunes rule. “From childhood on, I’ve loved Broadway musicals,” she says.

OPA’s mission includes presenting educational programs for all ages, from student matinees to master classes to workshops taught by professionals.

“An addition at the Holland designed for teaching dance classes was added about three years ago,” says OPA Vice Chairman Richard Holland. The performing arts center was named for him and his late wife, Mary.

10 January 2013- Joan Squires office is photographed for B2B Magazine.

Photo in Squires’ office of her with Debbie Reynolds (left) and Warren Buffett.

Squires has her finger on the pulse on Broadway theatre life and currently serves as a voting member for Broadway’s Tony Awards®. Active in Broadway League committees, she is a member of the Performing Arts Center Consortium and of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. She is an advisor for the Broadway Dreams Foundation.

The Life of Joan Squires

Joan was born and raised in Shippensburg, Pa., where her father ran a family business. Her twin brother, John, is the fourth generation in the business. Joan received her undergraduate degree in music education from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., and became a music teacher for three years. She loved her students, but teaching wasn’t her life’s mission.

She moved into arts management, earning a master’s degree in both business and music arts administration from the University of Michigan. She served as an intern for the National Endowment for the Arts and participated in a yearlong fellowship under the sponsorship of the League of American Orchestras.

Squires has worked in arts management for more than 25 years. Previous positions were with the Milwaukee, Utah, and Houston symphonies. She has received many honors including the Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor and the YWCA’s Woman of Vision. In 2012, she received a Governor’s Arts Award from the Nebraska Arts Council.

Squires has a short commute to work. She lives in a downtown condo about halfway between the two theaters that she oversees. Her husband, Tom Fay, was a vice president of the Arizona State University Foundation before they moved to Omaha. A native New Yorker, he played the oboe for 17 years with the Pittsburgh Symphony and held a second career in arts management and academic fundraising.

Fay and Squires have been married 22 years. She has three stepchildren and three grandchildren. Her husband has been supportive of her demanding career, says Squires. “He said he had his career, and it was now my turn.”

Squires said despite all the long hours she logs at work, it’s all worth it. “At the end of the day, standing in the back of the theater and watching the audience react, I think I have the best job in town.”