The Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts is three blocks from the Old Market District in Omaha. The Old Market is one of those rediscovered areas that was revived to become the home for stylish shops and boutiques. The area came alive in the late sixties. It was an area where produce was warehoused and resold. Derelict old brownstone buildings and brick streets came alive with an influx galleries, clothing stores, head shops and restaurants. One of those galleries, a very high quality contemporary crafts gallery, generated the idea of a center for contemporary art. Originally Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn, Lorne Folke and Ree Schonlau started an artist-in-industry program. This developed into the Bemis in 1984 when the old Bemis Bag Warehouse became available. Ree Schonlau, the gallery’s then director became the Bemis’s first and, so far, only Executive Director.
Surrounding the Old Market district are the shells of many old warehouses. Some have been torn down to make way for Hotels and parking structures. The buildings for ConAgra’s main headquarters nestle in the narrow chunk of land between the Market and the Missouri River. Both the old Union Pacific and the Burlington Railroad Stations are just up the hill next to the old Butternut Coffee factory with its giant rusted coffee can mounted on the roof. When it became apparent that the Bemis needed its own space, an effort was made to find another building. Bemis is newly housed in a freshly renovated building three blocks down the street and around the corner on a crumbling dead end street from its original home.
The Bemis provides community education, a gallery complex, studio facilities, apartments for its artist-in-residence program, and a research library/reading room. The studio facilities are amazing. 4000 sq.’ of gallery space, 10,000 sq.’ studio installation space and a 1/2 block of empty lot are available for exhibitions or installations. A 10,000 sq.’ clay studio was built with the direction of one of Bemis’s originators and more permanent residents, Jun Kaneko. Kaneko who is known for his massive clay “dumplings”, helped design and construct massive kilns with movable floors and winch systems to facilitate moving pieces. Other facilities, a printmaking studio, a basic woodworking studio, a welding facility, a darkroom, video equipment, a video viewing area are available. Two forklifts, pallet jacks and a bridge crane are also available. If an artist could conceivably need something, it probably is available here.
The Bemis accepts applications for its artist-in-residency program annually. Each application is reviewed carefully by a committee of four artists, an arts professional and a curator or museum director. Thirty artists are selected. Twelve artists are placed on a reserve list to fill spots if one of the select cant fulfill their residency. Artists from all over the world have spent their three to six months here.
Omaha is an odd city. It is a thriving community with a fair amount of discretionary income. But, there are a few, very few, really good restaurants and fewer still contemporary art galleries. It is still a city of steak houses and postcard art. The University of Nebraska at Omaha has an active fine arts program and it has been the stimulus for much of the creative activity in the city over the years. Omaha is also the home of the small but wonderful Joslyn Art Museum. Despite the years of incredible activity at the Bemis, the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts may remain one of the cities most closely held secrets.