In the bustling Old Market district lives the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. Tucked on the corner of 12th and Leavenworth streets, the unassuming brick warehouse holds the work of artists from around the world.
Housed in the McCord-Brady grocery warehouse, Bemis is a space by artists, for artists.
In 1981, founders Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn, Lorne Falk and Ree Schonlau developed the Alternative Worksite organization, which placed artists at industrial worksites where they could experiment and take creative risks.
With funding from public and private partners, the organization found a home in its namesake, the vacant Bemis Bag Warehouse in Omaha’s Old Market. In 1995, Bemis permanently moved to its current location and has continued growing ever since.
Over 40 years later, executive director Chris Cook says the organization has evolved to house three different core programs: exhibitions, residency and public programming.
“These programs have promoted Omaha as a cultural hub in the Midwest,” Cook says. “Oftentimes when I’m traveling, I’ll introduce myself to someone and they’ll know about Bemis. Their association with Omaha is through the lens of an amazing space supporting artists and contemporary art.”
The exhibition program allows community members to explore art from a global perspective. Bemis brings in four to six exhibitions per year. The art unfolds across over 13,000 square feet of gallery space on their main level. As visitors walk in, they are immersed in art from across the world.
One exhibition this year featured the debut collection from Israeli sound artist Maya Dunietz. The exhibition sprawled through the entire gallery space, immersing viewers through a series of installations.
“All of the exhibitions focus on art being made by living artists,” Cook says. “And the media, of course, is very diverse, as the geographic location of where the artists live and work varies greatly.”
The global connection doesn’t end when the exhibitions wrap. Bemis hosts international artists through their residency program.
“The residency program is often referred to as one of the top 10 residency programs in the world,” Cook says. “We receive anywhere from 1,000 to 1,300 applications per year, and we are able to provide live work residencies to about 34 to 36 artists per year.”
Through donations and sponsorship, Bemis supports the residents by paying travel costs, monthly stipends and material budgets.
“There are no expectations placed on them by the organization,” Cook says. “So, it’s their time and their decision on how they utilize the experience. It’s not about productivity, in the traditional sense of actually making something. We’re very supportive of the creative process and unproductive labor. And that’s oftentimes what artists really need.”
To better fit the needs of residents, Bemis launched Low End, a music venue and studio, for musicians and sound artists. In addition to the residents, Cook says Bemis brings in bands and musicians to perform every other week.
All performances and exhibitions are free to the community. Bemis advocates for art education and accessibility in the Omaha metro community.
“In terms of one of the most impactful programs we do on a local level would be our public programs,” Cook says. “Those really are designed to investigate and build conversations around the ideas or themes that are being explored within an exhibition, or maybe within a performance.”
As artists continue to navigate global concerns through their art, Bemis bridges the gap in the Omaha community by hosting lectures, discussions and creative workshops. The organization has established community partnerships with individuals and nonprofits across Omaha.
“Through those partnerships, we’re able to broaden the reach and impact of our programming,” Cook says. We can expand our access to contemporary art to expand our understanding and appreciation of creativity and the socio-economic concerns that artists are wanting to bring attention to, whether that be here in Omaha or in Chicago or LA or Brazil.”
By bringing in global voices, Bemis has created a diverse snapshot of contemporary culture. Bemis promotes diversity as a core part of its programming.
“We work extremely hard to have diverse points of view,” Cook says. “Whether that comes from an artist, a visitor or a participant in our program.”
Cook says Bemis will continue to grow to fit the needs of artists and the Omaha community. A growing operations budget provided new opportunities for the nonprofit to reach the community.
“We’ve had a number of major milestones over the last five to six years,” Cook says. “I think where this organization is will help position us for our next chapter.”
Cook says one goal is to continue growing the public’s appreciation for contemporary art.
“Artists, talks, lectures, panel discussions,” Cook says, “anything that helps our community and participants think through the global concerns that artists are trying to make sense of and articulate within their creative practice.” ◆