In Omaha and all around the nation, arts and culture programming came to a grinding halt with the pandemic. Now, organizations are slowly and safely beginning to reopen their doors and return to programming.

“Our community’s mental health has been harmed, but the arts will help heal us,” said Danna Kehm, CEO of Pottawattamie Arts, Culture and Entertainment (PACE). “We are all creative beings, we are all connected. It won’t be normal anytime soon for us but we’ll continue to pursue.”

Because of COVID-19’s far-reaching impact, the sector’s recovery will take some time.

“Like a lot of industries, the arts were hit hard by the pandemic because most of our business model is based on in-person performances, shows, etc.,” Kehm said.

“Our community’s mental health has been harmed, but the arts will help heal us. We are all creative beings, we are all connected.”

Charles Ahovissi, executive and artistic director of African Culture Connection, pictured above, said that 40% of their organization’s funding comes from paid performances and paid programming.

“During COVID, schools were closed so we were not getting paid for performances or teaching,” he said. “Every year, we used to make big money through Black History Month programming. But during COVID, we had zero revenue.”

The Pandemic Created a Cultural and Creative Deficit

In addition to the financial losses, artists and community members alike are suffering from a cultural and creative loss brought on by the pandemic. Matt Gutschick, artistic director of The Rose Performing Arts, noted the “play deficit” that kids experienced from being isolated at home, away from their friends and normal forms of recreation for more than a year.

“Developmentally, there are milestones that have been missed—socially and creatively,” he said. “Play deficit is something that leads to all kinds of social behavior and transgressive behavior. There is a body of research that proves that causal link. Throughout the pandemic, the opportunity to play with other kids was reduced for a meaningful amount of time.”

African Culture Connection heavily relies on offering in-person instruction and providing instruments for kids to play. This presented challenges during the pandemic.

“We usually take 40-50 drums to a school and teach kids about the story and history of drumming. So now, here is COVID and schools are closed. What do we do? We have to create an online tutorial,” Ahovissi said. “We did our best, but we can’t create a drum online. I have to be honest, students did not learn the way they used to because we didn’t have physical contact.”

Now that in-person programming is beginning to return—with limited numbers and strict safety measures—kids are beginning to recover from that play and learning deficit. Gutschick said that parents are thrilled with the opportunities their kids have to experience arts and culture again, and they appreciate the limited capacity.

“Most of what reaches our desks is gratitude for operating safely for kids,” he said.

In-School Programming is Coming Back

In Omaha-Council Bluffs, we are beginning to see a return of programming. This is not necessarily true in other parts of the nation. The Rose is in regular contact with arts organizations in urban centers in Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.

“We are the only organization among us that is able to go to work in schools right now so other communities feel this far more acutely to this day,” Gutschick said. “We have been able to deliver programs safely and that’s something we’re really grateful for.”

Omaha Public Schools have strict safety rules in place, as do the organizations interviewed.

“We haven’t seen data that it’s fundamentally unsafe or producing undue risk, particularly if there are mask requirements such as there are at OPS,” Gutschick said, adding that all of The Rose’s teaching artists are fully vaccinated and wear masks while in schools—with students also wearing masks.

We Need to Grow in Diversity and Equity

Other issues persist that existed before the pandemic. Arts organizations are predominantly located in central and downtown Omaha, according to research in The Landscape. Very few arts and culture organizations are found in North and South Omaha. Additionally, many local organizations are inaccessible to some residents due to high admission and/or program costs.

Nonprofits interviewed acknowledged the need for the Omaha-Council Bluffs area to expand what arts and culture experiences are being offered, who is offering them, and who is able to participate in or see them.

“We need to address the issues of diversity and inclusion,” Kehm said. “Our arts organizations have been looking closely at how can we show support by hiring and exhibiting diverse performers into productions. We all have to play a part. We all need to do better. We’re much more aware of it now as we are making decisions.”

This goal extends not only to artists and the arts workforce but also to those who get to enjoy the arts.

“Part of what The Rose is founded on is accessibility,” Gutschick said. Their goal is to provide opportunities for every child in the community to experience the arts—in every school, of every income level, every race, and every ability. The Rose received support from our Community Resilience Fund to launch a pilot program focused on an arts curriculum for students with physical and developmental disabilities.

Cultural Learning is Lacking in the Sector

In Omaha, Ahovissi observed that a limited number of organizations focus art and culture and that targeted and consistent funding is needed for cultural programming.

“To me, art and culture organizations are the ones teaching, serving, promoting, doing the work, and at the same time teaching the culture and the history,” he said. “There is more of the art-only side of things here. The few of them I know of are small organizations and they are less a part of the community.”

“It is hard to recruit people to train to become artists. I am the only traditional African artist in Iowa and Nebraska.”

African Culture Connection is committed to educating community members about the traditional dancing, drumming, and visual arts of African cultures.

“We know a lot about post-slavery, but we do not know about pre-slavery,” Ahovissi said. “What was the life that African ancestors had before colonization? Every aspect of life has a specific dance, drumming, and storytelling. We teach young people to perform and at the same time you are learning about the culture and the history.”

Artists are Underpaid and Underemployed

One of the most urgent issues mentioned by each nonprofit is the need to employ more artists and offer them livable wages. The Landscape data showed our region has fewer creative jobs than cities similar in size, and the area experienced a 4% loss in the number of creative jobs.

As it stands, artists typically work in a gig economy, receive low pay, and are forced to piece together multiple jobs to make ends meet. This is an issue that ultimately comes down to funding.

“We operate on a labor shortage all the time,” Gutschick said. “We have not increased our level of staffing for 10-15 years. We have one carpenter, painter, props person doing everything. How is that sustainable with the earned income we have? We are working hard at paying people better, but it means that we can’t bring more people in.”

Limited funding for staff salaries and operational expenses keeps salaries low—and sometimes unlivable, which influences the makeup of organizational staff positions.

“That’s where you get the sense in the arts world that it can be tethered to a certain kind of whiteness in the labor force because of all the systemic advantages that need to be in place for people to have independent resources to sustain working at a nonprofit. That’s just not the way it should be,” Gutschick said.

Ahovissi spoke to the lack of cultural teachers and African artists in the region, saying, “It is hard to recruit people to train to become artists. I am the only traditional African artist in Iowa and Nebraska. Fifteen years from now, will there be more than one African artist in the two states?”

Kehm added, “I would love to be able to keep artists employed so we’re not losing a big part of our community and our culture that has sustained our life and made them better places to live and work. If artists don’t have a job, how can we sustain that piece of our community and our culture?”

Local Arts Organizations Are Grateful to Still Be Here

Each of the nonprofits interviewed noted the generosity of the local philanthropic community and say they would not have survived without the support of local donors and federal CARES Act Funding.

Julie Walker, managing director of The Rose Performing Arts said, “The Rose Theater has been here 77 years. At one point there was the question of, ‘Can we continue?’ Because of the support locally and federally, we kept our full-time staff… We survived. We attended national meetings and learned we are in a fairly unique position. A lot of places lost arts organizations so we couldn’t be more grateful that this is where we are.”

Continued Support is Needed

When asked what the current needs are Kehm plainly says, “Funding.” Nobody could attend events for over a year and now as arts and culture begin to return, those organizations need folks to return. Kehm suggests that community members “buy local art; return to the theater; become a subscriber and member; consider donating the price of a ticket to an organization….help us get back to normal because we will need support.”

As we consider how to support local arts and culture, it’s wise to remember the gifts of hope, resiliency, and connectedness the community receives from the creative sector. We encourage you to support the recovery of Arts & Culture in Omaha-Council Bluffs with a donation to the Community Resilience Fund.

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