Recently, a group of 5th year architecture students from Kansas University, led by professor Josh Shelton of el dorado inc. architects and joined by Bemis Art Center Chief Curator Hesse McGraw, visited us in both Chicago and Omaha. For their spring semester project, Josh’s students are investigating the North Omaha community, specifically in relation to the ongoing artist residency space we are developing with the Bemis Center in the Carver Bank Building at 24th and Lake Street.
Adjacent to the bank is a large chunk of vacant land, which the students will explore as a site for an affordable housing development focused on arts and culture.
The week started out with the students getting a tour of Dorchester Project spaces, including the Prairie Avenue Bookstore collection (a favorite among architects and designers)
We then headed over to 6901 S. Dorchester to walk through the construction site of the Black Cinema House, where the students were introduced to Theaster.
From there we headed to the Hyde Park Art Center, where the students received a meticulous tour from the new Education Director, Mike Nourse. As one of the oldest community based art centers in the city, HPAC has amazing vitality and relevance not just to the Hyde Park neighborhood, but to the city as a whole. It was informative and inspiring to get to see behind the scenes of such an efficient organization with so many moving parts and activated spaces.
Later that evening we convened for a dinner and discussion at Theaster’s studio in the ICNC building in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor.
From Chicago, the students, Josh, Hesse, and myself headed to Omaha to visit the project site, tour the Bemis Center, and meet with some North Omaha community stakeholders. Jim Beatty from the Great Plains Black History Museum and Othello Meadows from Seventy Five North Revitalization Inc provided us with some incredibly pointed insights about the history of development in North Omaha and how they see the area fitting in with the greater Omaha region.
Jim and Othello both stressed the need for immediate activation of spaces and projects within North Omaha, as a counter to more common large scale proposals that are often projected onto areas of blight (not just in North Omaha) without any real process in mind for how they could become real, or might not have any measurable impact for many years. We got a glimpse of what this sort of immediate and thoughtful activation looks like when we visited Brigitte McQueen, whose nearby Union for Contemporary Art recently began their artist residency program.
The highlight of the day, though, was lunch at Big Mama’s Kitchen, an Omaha soul food institution.
Patricia “Big Mama” Barron and her restaurant represent the sort of successful business that many people would like to see replicated in other parts of North Omaha. It is our hope that our project can help to facilitate this process by providing an active commercial space.
The timing could not be better for this whole project, as the Bemis was just awarded a generous gift from the Rauschenberg Foundation specifically for this project. This award will help fund the first year of programming costs, which will include stipends for three artists and one gardener/landscaper-in-residence, as well as a full time program director. The details of the actual redesign and build out of the Carver Bank Space will be developed and facilitated through a temporary design center space at the Bemis throughout the spring. We are very excited about this process, and look forward to posting the progress as it happens!