After working in business for nearly 10 years, Larry Roots sat down with his mentor Norman Geske and asked him if he had what it took to be an artist.
Nearly 30 years later, Roots runs his own art gallery showcasing his own work and that of artists around the Midwest.
Roots, an Omaha native, found a passion for art early in life. He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a Bachelor of Arts in painting.
Upon graduation, Roots transitioned into a career in business. Roots says during this time, he sought a career that provided stability.
“I wanted to raise a family, so that took me to getting a real job and painting in the basement,” Roots says. “I went into business, and that helped me understand management and responsibility.”
But Roots felt drawn back to creating art full-time. His conversation with Geske inspired Roots to leave the business world in 1993 and begin working with dealers to sell his art.
In 2003, Roots opened the doors to Modern Arts Midtown in the Haymarket District in Lincoln. After seven years in the capital city, Roots says he wanted to move back to Omaha. His gallery’s current home is situated on the corner of Dodge and 37th streets.
“It’s a bigger city,” Roots says. “We developed clients that flew through Omaha, and we learned it was a good place for artwork and to build patrons who come from all over.”
Roots advocates for contemporary art in Nebraska. He connected with accomplished artists who showed their art in cities such as Chicago or New York and created a space for them in Omaha.
Though over 70 artists display their work in the gallery, Roots fosters connections with each artist. He says it’s important to recognize their interests and different voices.
“We can’t send a mass email,” Roots says. “We all speak different languages and work in different ways.”
Roots says their common passion brings the artists together. When meeting, there’s always open dialogue about their work.
“We have a lot in common with King Arthur and his court,” Roots says. “We all sit at the round table and pursue the same interests.”
Modern Arts Midtown operates differently than many art galleries. Instead of showing art in the gallery for 30 days and removing what doesn’t sell, each piece is inventoried for future sale.
“We feel that responsibility to the artist,” Roots says. “We tell the artist’s story. We discuss it with our patrons so they can be intelligible about the work and perpetuate the artists.”
The live gallery means the displays are always changing. When something sells, new art fills the blank spaces.
The gallery walls are filled with art from artists around the world, who have ties to the Midwest. Works from Peter Hill, the godfather of art in Omaha, line one wall, while art professors from universities across Nebraska are scattered through the gallery.
One artist first began displaying her work at the gallery while completing a local residency program. Roots recalls how she would drive through the streets in her pickup truck with her dog laying in the back seat. Fifteen years later, her work is still being displayed in Omaha though she’s now started a family in New Jersey.
Roots’ own studio sits near the back of the gallery. When he’s not building bridges between artists and collectors, he’s creating his own body of work.
Roots says he enjoys playing with perspectives in his art. Everything he creates is metaphorical for living and existence.
“I find my inspiration in everything,” Roots says. “I watch a leaf fly across the concrete or pause to consider how a bird flies.”
His passion for learning and exploring allows Roots to push past his comfort zone when creating.
“Learning takes you to new territories just beyond the parameters of the undiscovered,” Roots says. “Working as an artist can be hard because we’re trying to learn about ourselves and find the direction for what’s next.”
Throughout his career, Roots witnessed many changes in the Omaha community as the city became more known for its art.
“Nebraska’s art and the art we make here is competitive with major art markets,” Roots says. “We have a lot of people moving here from other parts of the country, and they’re moving here by choice.”
Roots enjoys seeing how art can become part of a city’s brand. Omaha, like many other cities, showcases public art across the city and its parks.
Under Roots’ direction, Modern Arts Midtown has become known in the community as a good source for local art. Roots’ love of sharing the work of other artists has furthered the gallery’s mission.
By looking to the past, Roots says we can be confident a space for artists will always exist. Even after he can no longer create, Roots knows the gallery will continue to thrive.
“Art has survived since the cavemen in one form or another,” Roots says. “It’s one thing that remains constant and important in every culture. I was once asked ‘so, where do you go from here?’ There’s always a promise of something else and more possibilities. There is a future in sustaining artists and their work.”