Tag Archives: Anti-Defamation League

Omaha Performing Arts

October 13, 2015 by
Illustration by Devin Golden

When Tony Bennett took to the stage at Holland Performing Arts Center in 2005, it was just another in the long list of innumerable venues he had played over the course of his legendary career. By the time he left, it stood out as one of the best.

That’s because as he began to sing, he paused, put aside his microphone and said, “I don’t need this.” Bennett was able to perform without technical enhancement, a rarity among performance venues. Not, however, at the Holland. The facility boasts state-of-the-art acoustics, and whether front-row-center or in the uppermost tier, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Making sure there aren’t any bad seats is the job of Omaha Performing Arts, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The nonprofit organization manages both the Holland Center, which opened in 2005 and is home to the Omaha Symphony, and the Orpheum Theater, built in 1927 as a premier venue for vaudeville acts. Together the two dominate the city’s performing arts scene and feature an eclectic array of talent ranging from classical ballet legends to Broadway blockbusters to jazz giants to even political pundits.

That kind of variety was unimaginable 10 years ago when the Orpheum served as Omaha’s primary performing arts venue. It hosted Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, and limited-run Broadway productions as well as community events such as high school graduations, dance recitals, and fashion shows. “The Orpheum’s schedule didn’t allow for the majority of artists and performers we have today,” explains Joan Squires, Omaha Performing Arts’ president since its founding. “It was a very confining schedule.”

Omaha also lacked a venue with the sound quality necessary to showcase singers and musicians to full effect. “One of the problems we had in the performing arts was that the music hall at the Civic Auditorium had fairly poor acoustics,” explains John Gottschalk, the organization’s chairman of the board. “You can’t have performers if you don’t have a place where what they do on stage isn’t getting out to the audience.”

HollandGraphicDick Holland, who, along with his late wife Mary, provided the main bequest for the $102 million performing arts facility that today bears their name, elaborates, “We had no good place for the symphony orchestra. The symphony is an expensive damn thing to have. And it needs full support to have first class musicians.”

The Holland Center provided that support and opened up the Orpheum’s schedule, making it possible for Omaha Performing Arts to offer a wider selection of performances. “We bring in the kinds of performances that would not appear here otherwise,” Squires notes. “We really seek to bring in top artists and have brought in a wonderful array. That’s a large factor in our success.”

Deborah Ward, director of marketing and communications for the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau, loves that success. “Omaha Performing Arts has really enhanced not only downtown’s cultural landscape but also the entire city’s,” she comments. “It’s provided unique performance venues and equally unique performances and has been really clever in the acts it’s brought in. We recently did research for the Kansas City, Des Moines, and Sioux Falls markets. We specifically wanted to know why those people come to Omaha. We found that 11 percent come for arts and culture.”

Less quantifiable are the educational benefits to the community, which are just as important and exist as one of Omaha Performing Arts’ primary missions. “We look for community opportunities that don’t always exist,” explains Squires. “We use performances to partner with the community and find ways to connect and build community engagement.” This includes master classes taught by performers, student matinees, discounted tickets for underserved communities, and a host of other offerings. In 2011 the Broadway show Wicked, for example, provided an opportunity for an anti-bullying summit involving cast members, school students, and the Anti-Defamation League. This year, the organization is introducing Carnegie Hall Musical Explorers, a program that builds basic music skills for students in kindergarten through second grade.

“The experience for our community is wonderfully enriching, and people understand that,” notes Gottschalk. “We have these professionals in town and the great gifts they give to people in terms of their time and talent. When a young person walks into a great hall, they’re inspired.”

As Omaha Performing Arts celebrates its first decade, Squires can’t help but be enthusiastic about its future. “As we get into the 10th anniversary, our real focus is to engage the community,” she says. “There’s still so much we can do.”

Holland agrees. “We’re damned proud of what we’ve done. We’re going into the coming 10 years terribly enthusiastic about everything and about growing more.”

HollandGraphicWide

Artist Watie White

February 10, 2015 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dilapidated houses. Watie White has learned a lot about working with them, but not in the conventional sense. Last year, the artist partnered with Habitat for Humanity to take three homes slated for demolition on Emmet Street in North Omaha and turned them into monumental installations that focused on the history of a poor neighborhood, one often overlooked or completely ignored by the general public.

The project, called All That Ever Was Always Is, involved making 81 paintings, which were turned into vinyl prints and then installed in all the windows of each home. Before making the paintings, White explored the houses’ histories by interviewing previous inhabitants and neighbors. He also used artifacts like letters and photographs left behind to create a narrative history.

“They turned out to be really strong, profound pieces,” says White. “For the people who live in that neighborhood, they’re not just houses—they’re part of a community.”

White additionally hosted community dinners and public talks. “It was important because neighbors thought about the personal value of that kind of situation. It was a chance to bring people together and a lot of beautiful, little things happened, things that were good about their neighborhoods,” he explains. “It was a cathartic experience.”

Although the homes were demolished in December, the artist is already working on his next public art projects. For New Nebraskans, which is in partnership with Justice for Our Neighbors and representatives from the Intercultural Senior Center, public schools, the v, and the Anti-Defamation League, he will create four large-scale murals (a fifth is currently installed at the Justice for our Neighbors’ headquarters). They will feature immigrants and refugees living in Benson, North Omaha, South Omaha, and Little Italy.

For You Are Here, White will partner with inCOMMON Community Development to paint a large-scale banner mural for a public housing building located at Park Avenue adjoining Hanscom Park. Like his Emmet Street work, White will feature community members and is interviewing people so he can portray the neighborhood as accurately as possible. “I want people to be touched or at least feel something about the projects,” says the artist.

Recently White also received high-profile national attention himself. He (along with Angela Drakeford) was chosen to represent Nebraska in State of the Art, an exhibition running through January 19th at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, AR. The selection process began with a list of 10,000 U.S. artists, which was then cut to 1,000. Following nationwide studio visits, he was selected as one of 102 artists to be featured. The inclusion was significant: not every state was represented and such dignitaries as Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, and Deepak Chopra have visited the prestigious museum founded by Alice Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune.

“It’s hard to know what will come of it,” White says, “but it’s hard to overstate how much it feels like it legitimizes what you do.”

20141119_bs_8788