Los Angeles has its Oscars, New York City its Tonys, and Omaha the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.
And though Louis B. Mayer created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (and thus the Oscars) in order to stave off unionification, one man in Omaha is largely responsible for creating the OEAAs as a method of unifying artists in Omaha.
John Heaston, publisher of The Reader, was brought an idea in 2006 to hold an awards ceremony in which Omaha artists would be honored for their work throughout the year. The Reader was asked to be the organizer of the event, but the committee decided to make it more community-based, so they decided to set up the organization as a 501c3. Heaston threw his publication’s hat in the ring by promoting it in the magazine, and he threw himself into helping create the best awards ceremony he could.
“The OEAAs would not exist without him,” says Emily Cox, the show’s current producer and a past board member.
Heaston has been instrumental in bringing together some of Omaha’s most notable artists to be part of the event. In the first show, the organization honored musician Luigi Waites with the lifetime achievement award.
“We were trying to tell him we wanted him to be a presenter, when we were actually trying to give him an award,” Heaston recalls. “He thought he was going to go visit family, but then we contacted his family and got them to come here so we could get him to the awards ceremony.”
“John has a knack for attracting talent and giving [people] a platform—which is what the OEAAs are all about,” says Brent Crampton, who won Best DJ/Electronic the first year. “So in a way, the reflex to start the OEAAs was just an extension of who John is: a passionate connector that wants to mobilize talented people in his community.”
In the beginning, the awards show was simply that—an awards show. The honors were presented using a PowerPoint presentation to announce the categories and artists. As the event has grown, it has become a series of events for the entire arts community, incorporating art shows, music showcases, and workshops to teach artists about marketing and other points about the business of creating art.
Growing pains were inevitable, but Heaston always believed in the community, and the event.
“John [knew] there were plenty of times when this could have fizzled out,” Cox says. “He says, ‘Let’s think about this.’ When people push back and present problems, he says, ‘Well, let’s fix it.’”
Cox recalls the year the event changed presentation formats, saying it was Heaston’s ability to collaborate that made the change happen.
“It was when we decided we were going to change from a PowerPoint to creating the videos where we show footage of an art show or a concert,” Cox says. “It was going to be a huge task of getting the data, then we decided to get small interviews, asking people, ‘What do the OEAAs mean to you?’ John was the one who stepped in and said, ‘I’ll get people to help.’”
And he does, because for Heaston, this event is a pure labor of love.
“I think the lifetime achievements are especially moving,” Heaston says. “I think for artists to be recognized by other artists means a lot to them.”
He remembers musician Conor Oberst coming up to accept awards and saying that if there weren’t people in Omaha to buy cassette tapes when he was a kid, he might not be where he is today. He recalls promoter Matt Markel winning his lifetime achievement award after suffering a stroke and being humbled and honored by the acknowledgment.
Though Heaston is the constant in this event, he recognizes that it is not all about him.
“There’s been an incredible group of unsung heroes that have volunteered countless hours,” Heaston says. “It’s an extremely thankless job. Invariably there’s someone who doesn’t like the nominees or the honorees and has a different opinion.”
Still, it’s worth it for him, and the artistic community he fosters, when he sees the best of Omaha art come together early each year.
“What I loved about them the most was that it was the only time of year that all these artists and musicians got together under one roof,” Crampton says. “To pull so many creatives together in one space is a pretty incredible feat, and [it] gave us a sense of solidarity. What other event does that?”
“There’s no other time when you have all these artists across the three major disciplines together,” Heaston says.
And the artists certainly think this event is worth the energy it takes to put together.
“The best part is the joy and happiness afterwards,” Cox says. “I think it’s useful to all of the local musicians. It’s on a lot of their one-sheets*.”
Heaston has steered the OEAAs for many years, taking strides to make sure the OEAAs will be a part of this community.
“He wants to see so much of Omaha thrive,” Cox says. “He’ll do anything to keep this going.”
*A one-sheet is a single page overview of a band and/or music used by PR agents, distributors, and other industry professionals to determine how sellable your band is to any given audience.
Nominate an Artist
by Doug Meigs
Did you see a phenomenal theatrical production within the past year? What’s the best new album by a local band? Which gallery hosted Omaha’s best art exhibit?
Now is your chance to call out the best of Omaha’s artistic communities with the Omaha Entertainment & Arts Awards.
Public nominations for the 2020 OEAA awards show are open now through Aug. 31.
The preliminary nominations will be voted on by the OEAA Academy. Awards for work (produced or exhibited between Sept. 1, 2018, and Aug. 31, 2019) will be announced at the 14th OEAA ceremony in February 2020.
Doug Meigs is president of the OEAA board of directors and former executive editor of Omaha Magazine, an OEAA sponsor.