Art Works Blog

Artists-in-Community at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

This photo is from Natalie Lindstrom's session at Art Links. As described by Holly McAdams, "Natalie was using a paper hat-making activity to talk about ideas of 3D design. The identity of the youth at Youth Links must remain anonymous, so it is tricky to document their interactions. I love this photo because the youth were so excited about the project that they insisted that Natalie take their pictures and came up with creative ways to hide their own identities." Photo by Natalie Lindstrom

When you think of an artist residency, you may think of an artist squirreled away in a studio out of reach of the daily distractions of life. And while it is true that solitude and time to completely focus on one’s work is a significant part of any artist retreat, there are also many artists who---as part of their practice--- want to engage with the community that is hosting their residency. To that end, Omaha, Nebraska’s Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts has partnered with local social services agency Heartland Family Services to create opportunities for its artists-in-residence to work with the local community in deeply meaningful ways.

To date, the project has benefitted more than 600 individuals in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area. According to Holly McAdams, who oversees the project, "Over 500 of these individuals are at-risk youth, 50 are women breaking the cycle of substance and/or domestic abuse, and 15 are senior citizens." This fall Bemis received a grant of $20,000 from the NEA to support another year of the project. We spoke with McAdams to learn more about this community-centered partnership.

NEA: Tell us about the history and mission of Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

HOLLY MCADAMS: The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts was founded in 1981, by artists for artists, with the sole mission to support exceptional talent. Beginning as a seasonal artist-in–industry alternative worksite program the organization quickly developed into a year-round artist-in-residence program that, to date, has served over 600 artists from all over the world with the gift of time, space, and support. Occupying a one-and-a-half-block campus in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, the artist-centered organization continues to achieve its mission through its core artist-in-residence program, exhibitions program, art sales program, and community arts program.

NEA:  How did the idea for the artist-in-residence collaboration with Heartland come about?

MCADAMS: The Bemis Center and a mutual board member of the two organizations initiated the conversation. The Bemis Center’s community arts program was focusing on ways to create and support vital roles for artists within the community through a residency experience. Heartland Family Service’s director was extremely interested in exploring the benefits of providing access to quality arts experiences for the agency’s clients and staff. He recognized the role that the arts could play in enriching lives and reducing stress through creative expression, increasing the agency’s ability to successfully serve the community. The mutual board member was thrilled to consider how two organizations that she respects and supports---an arts organization and a human service agency---could work together and strengthen each others' missions.

NEA: How does this collaboration fit with Bemis' core mission?

MCADAMS: The program emphasizes the impact of community engagement on artists’ studio practices. For artists interested in directly engaging the greater community in their creative process, the program offers access, time, and support to build relationships and develop processes through impactful two-way engagement.

NEA: Who were some of the artists who participated in the 2011 pilot, and what types of activities did they facilitate?

MCADAMS: Twelve artists participated in the 2011 pilot year engaging 10 Heartland Family Service Programs. Here are some examples:

Portia V. Love, a writer and poet, collaborated with the women at the Iowa and Nebraska Family Works---a residential substance abuse treatment for women with children---to compile a book of poems and letters titled Looking at Your Glass Half Full. Love also engaged residents of Youth Links, a triage center for troubled youth, in a writing competition and poetry slam.

Ceramicist and sculptor Iggy Sumnik has worked with the Children’s Emergency Shelter twice per week over the last six months. Despite rapid turnover, Sumnik has been able to build on trust and respect communicated from one youth to another allowing him to continuously evolve and build on activities centered on his own art-making practices as well as the interests of the youth. Sumnik also worked with the Ruth Solomon Girls Center, an after-school program for girls 5-18, to help them to realize their vision for a permanent stepping-stone installation in their garden.

Natalie Linstrom, a visual artist, has worked with Youth Links since March 2011. She has facilitated activities that demonstrate design, drawing, painting, and sculptural techniques as well as quiltmaking and clothing design upon request of the youth. Linstrom’s time has resulted in a permanent mural for the facilities and inspired her to explore new directions in her own studio practices.

Visual artist Paula Wallace engaged the Therapeutic School, a K-12 school for youth with major mental diagnoses. Rather than visiting on a weekly basis over an extended period, Paula moved a temporary painting studio into the school for two-and-a-half weeks. Inspired by her current body of work---narrative paintings about mischievous rabbits---the youth assisted Wallace in creating a narrative for her paintings as well as their own rabbit-inspired artworks and stories about “uh oh” moments. Together they completed compiled a book titled At My School.

Music and performance artist Jill Anderson collaborated with theater and visual artist Amy Kunz on two residencies with Senior Services, which is  a recreational and nutritional programming for ages 60+.  The first residency focused on Appalachian song collection and the second on the 1920s jazz era. The artists directed performances including singing, dancing, era-inspired sketches, and original poetry.

NEA:  What's the overall benefit to the Heartland clients who participate? To the artists? To the Omaha metro community?

MCADAMS: Clients and staff learn new ways to express themselves and process experiences. They gain confidence by participating and succeeding in activities that develop new skills and ways of thinking. They build genuine relationships with the artists and each other through shared experience and encouragement.

Artists gain new understanding of their own creative processes through shared perspectives. They make discoveries about themselves, others, and their process that would not be possible in the isolation of their studios. The overall community benefits as individuals’ lives are enriched through creative process, and they, in turn, enrich the community.

NEA: Have there been any unexpected outcomes of the project so far?

MCADAMS: There haven’t been so much unexpected outcomes as outcomes that affirm or exceeded our expectations. One artist discovered her unknown love for working with at-risk teens, and her interactions with them have completely transformed her own studio practices. Several programs have declared that they consider their resident artists part of their program family and remarked that the artists’ sessions are the clients’ favorite part of the day, which they talk about constantly until the artist’s return. One artist stated that she feels it is an honor to work with her programs and she has learned as much from the clients as she has offered to them. And staff members have raved that the engagement with the artists has made for a happier environment that makes their efforts easier and more successful.

NEA: Any advice for other artist residency programs that want to encourage their visiting artists to deepen their engagement with the local community?

MCADAMS: My advice for other residency programs is to consider artist fit and to be clear about what is expected of the artist as well as what they can hope to gain. In the Bemis Center’s core residency program, we emphasize that the artists’ time and space is their own. We do not require them to incorporate community engagement into their schedule. Many of our residents would be fabulous candidates for a community residency, however, most apply to this program because they are looking for this unrestricted time. By staying artist-focused and selecting artists whose interests align with a program’s, then the outcome will have the greatest positive impact on both the community and the artist.

NEA: How important is the NEA grant to the Bemis-Heartland collaboration?

MCADAMS: Receiving this NEA grant is a great honor. It affirms our belief that the program allows us to set a precedent for innovation supporting artists within our community. The grant also influenced our existing funders who,upon news of NEA funding, increased their support of the program. In less than one week’s time the project went from 47 percent to fully funded! Thank you!

Visit our News Room to read more about the projects we've supported with our latest round of grant funding.


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