Andrew Saladino could work anywhere in the United States, but he fell in love with, and in, Omaha.
The executive director of the Omaha Creative Institute feels pride for his adopted hometown, and he is invested in unifying, fostering, and growing Omaha’s artistic community.
OCI provides professional development, grants, connections, and advocacy for artists. The nonprofit operates out of a small office kitty-corner to the former Bohemian Cafe on 13th Street.
The 29-year-old is not who you would typically imagine leading such an effort. Saladino grew up in Bedford, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.
After planning to be a musician, he caught the acting bug and ended up studying theater education at the University of New Hampshire. He landed an internship at The Rose between his junior and senior years, spending his time teaching children’s theater in Omaha.
“I taught all summer long,” Saladino says. “I basically didn’t leave the building.”
The Rose invited him back for a yearlong fellowship program, and he was a teaching artist for another two years at the theater. He met his future wife, Omaha native Jennifer Ettinger, at The Rose after she was hired for the next fellowship.
Saladino followed her to graduate school in New York City for almost two years, but being in such an “exhausting city” made him eager to get back to this “big and small” town.
“I was the one pushing to come back to Omaha,” he says. “This is a great city…I’ve never been in a city that was so active in making itself better.” He was especially attracted to the up-and-coming arts scene, and enjoys spending time at the Bemis Center, KANEKO, the Old Market galleries, and Benson First Fridays.
They moved back in 2015, and he worked at the American Red Cross before landing at OCI.
Watie White, a local artist and OCI board member who was involved in Saladino’s hiring, says the institute needed someone young and talented, “eager for a place to not just call home but a place to really get to grow.” Saladino fit the bill.
“He didn’t come in knowing everything,” White says. “He came in eager to learn everything.”
Since taking over as executive director, Saladino has focused on growing OCI’s programs and the service it provides for artists working in the community. His primary work is long-term strategy, sustainability, fundraising, and the nonprofit’s finances.
One area where Saladino has focused his efforts is growing OCI’s grant program, building off an initial grant funded by donations from an Omaha Gives! campaign to create an established program with funding committed to keep making awards.
OCI currently has a twice-a-year grant cycle, giving four unrestricted artist grants of $3,500 each, with one earmarked for a working parent and one for a new American immigrant or refugee; two public project grants of $5,000 each; and $6,000 in emergency grants, given on an as-needed basis within 48 hours.
Angie Seykora, an artist living and working in Omaha, received one of the 2018 unrestricted grants. She says that she used the money to pay for an assistant, an art history graduate who relocated from New York for a few months to gain experience in a studio environment.
With the assistant’s help, Seykora says she was able to speed up production of her artwork and have more time to refine her pieces.
“It is giving artists an opportunity to make their practice a little more sustainable,” Seykora says. “This grant program has allowed me to organically make my work.”
Promoting more sustainable, authentic careers for working artists is what OCI seeks to do each day. Under Saladino’s leadership, the nonprofit will continue to value artists’ careers in Omaha and provide support for their contribution to the community’s culture.
Visit omahacreativeinstitute.org for more information.
This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.