Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts
Sonja Hinrichsen writes about her experiences with the AiR Program for Visual Artists in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts offers artist residencies for visual artists of all disciplines. The program addresses artists of all age groups and all levels of their careers. However, applicants need to be professional artists who have finished their education (students are excluded). The program supports talented artists from all over the world, which makes the Bemis Center’s residency community very international. It is important that the applicants for this program have a fair command of the English language. Residency periods are typically 3 months long. The Bemis Center pays a monthly stipend to each resident artist.
The Bemis Center usually hosts 7 - 8 artists at a time. Each artist has his/her own live/work space on the second level of a large warehouse that was converted into an art center including exhibition galleries and artist residency. Each artist space has its own bathroom and kitchen area. On the one hand this set-up gives the artists the opportunity to interact and create a dialogue with one another if they wish. On the other hand there are no social requirements and they are free to focus entirely on their work without any interruptions if they prefer. The resident community changes frequently, as artists arrive and leave at different times. New residents usually arrive at the very beginning of their first month and leave towards the end of their third month. Bemis Center residents typically are highly inspired and inspiring artists with a very high artistic expertise.
What does the Bemis Center offer to the artists-in-residence?
The Bemis Center provides each artist-in-residence with a large industrial space that has been converted into a studio + living space. Most of the spaces are very spacious and are suitable for any kind of artwork, including large-scale painting, sculpture and installation. All of the individual spaces are fully furnished and are heated in winter / air-conditioned in summer. In addition, there is an installation space on the same floor as well as a large hall in a separate building. Residents can sign up for these spaces if they want to set up large pieces. There is also half a block of open-air space for artists working outdoors. In the basement of the center there is a workshop with hand- and power tools for wood and metal work. Resident artists can use this workshop after an introduction from the facilities manager. The Bemis Center has a freight elevator for large or heavy materials / artwork.
The center also maintains a well-stocked art library, where artists can read art magazines, watch art videos or check out books to read in their studios.
The residency includes a generous monthly stipend (750 US $ per month) to cover costs for food, art materials and other living expenses. Artists who would like to apply for an additional grant to be paid during their residency at the Bemis Center should consider applying to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which has in the past provided matching scholarships to several Bemis Center residents. This requires a separate application directly to the Pollock- Krasner Foundation. Please ask the Bemis Center for information about this opportunity once you have been accepted to their residency program. The Pollock – Krasner Foundation supports painters and sculptors.
The center does not provide food or prepare meals for the residents. Every resident has his/her own kitchen for food preparation and storage. There is a small food store within a short walking distance from the Bemis Center (1 block). However, the residency staff offers rides to other stores when needed. In addition to general supermarkets there are several specialty food stores in Omaha, such as health food stores and an Asian food market. During the summer months there is a farmers market every Saturday morning only a couple of blocks from the Bemis Center. It offers fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables at very reasonable prices. Since the Bemis Center is in the old center of Omaha, there are a variety of restaurants, cafes and bars close by.
There are several art stores, hardware and homebuilder stores in Omaha where materials can be purchased. Also the Bemis Center has a storage of materials in the 4th floor of its large building. These are random materials that have been donated, but for some artists the 4th floor may well serve as a source of materials. The residents are welcome to use any of the items they can find there.
The Bemis Center staff is very happy to arrange partnerships with other organizations, local colleges or companies in case an artist needs to use special facilities for his/her work (e.g. printing press, photo processing, metal works, ceramics). It is advisable to discuss these needs with the Bemis Center well before the residency in order to give the staff time to find adequate solutions. The Bemis Center is generally well connected and sees the need of establishing new relationships as an opportunity for them to partner with yet more organizations.
The Bemis Center’s Mission and its Expectations of the artists
The Bemis Center’s concept is to support exceptional talent and a high level of artistic creativity. Their goal is to provide time and space for artists to experiment within their media or perhaps even discover a new medium / subject matter in their artistic expression. Crossovers of disciplines are encouraged. Artistic activity, experimentation, uniqueness of work and creating dialogue are emphasized more than focusing on a finished final product. The Bemis Center hopes that their resident artists will have groundbreaking moments while at the center and they do not expect this experience to take shape immediately. The Bemis Center hopes that being away from home and everyday distractions (jobs, friends, events etc.) allows the artists to be more open and experimental in their art practice. They are aware that the results of these experiences might not become apparent until years later.
The Bemis Center does not have any social expectations towards the artists. Sometimes communal dinners or Sunday BBQs are arranged, but it is up to each individual artist whether they want to participate.
Each artist is required to give a short public lecture as a contribution to the monthly Art Talk lecture series. This program serves an important part in the Bemis Center’s focus on integrating the local community into the center’s activity. Moreover it provides an opportunity for the public to get an insight into the ideas and concepts of contemporary arts.
The Bemis Center arranges Open House events 2 - 3 times a year, when the local public is invited to meet with the resident artists and see their work in progress in their studios.
The center also asks for a donation of one piece that has been created during the residency, as well as 20 slides / digital images taken of the work (or work in progress) addressed during the residency.
There are no fees for the residency, except of an application fee of 40 $. Artists are, however, responsible for their own travel. The Bemis Center does not provide a travel grant.
What else is there?
Besides the residency program, which is the core program, the Bemis Center also runs three large galleries on the ground floor. In these they present temporary exhibitions, such as internationally curated shows and past residents’ work. Furthermore there is a large gallery space on the basement level, which is dedicated to the Bemis Center’s curatorial residency program “Bemis Underground”. This program invites local artists and curators to submit concepts for exhibitions and performances. While the first floor exhibition programs have existed for many years, the “Bemis Underground” was started more recently and grew out of a need for alternative exhibition opportunities for Omaha artists. All exhibition programs aim toward giving the local community a chance to experience contemporary art within a midwestern city that has a somewhat limited art scene. While I was at the Bemis Center the main galleries hosted “Signal Channel”, a comprehensive video art show, probably Omaha’s first show dedicated entirely to video art. It included an overview of the history of video art, as well as celebrated contemporary work, video installations by local artists and pieces by former Bemis Center residents. The “Bemis Underground” featured several compelling shows of local artwork over the period of my residency. The goal of the center’s exhibition programs is to be progressive and on a leading edge in the art scene.
In addition to the exhibition program the Bemis Center interacts with the community through its public outreach and community education program (a collaboration with Omaha schools and public libraries) as well as its public sculpture program.
Who can apply?
The artist-in-residence program at the Bemis Center is open to all visual artists worldwide. There are no restrictions in terms of genre, media, age, country of origin etc.
Application Procedure and Selection Process
The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts has 2 application deadlines per year: February 28th and September 30th. The application is an online application process. In addition to your own materials you will be asked for contact information for 3 art professionals that know your work well. They will be contacted by the Bemis Center directly if you are selected for a residency. You do not need to include any reference letters with your application.
Applications are reviewed by an outside jury that the Bemis Center invites. The jury consists of a different group of art professionals for every session. Your visual material (slides / digital images / video) is the most important component of the application. It’s important that you present yourself very well, that your material is of high visual quality and explains your work clearly. The selection process is highly competitive and the jury reviews hundreds of submissions. This means your materials have to stand out and catch their attention very quickly. The works you submit need to be coherent. Curate your images thoroughly, just like you would be curating a show. It can sometimes be confusing for the jury if applicants present more than one body of work.
Artist statements and proposals are usually reviewed only for those artists who are considered for a residency based on their work samples. They help the jury make a final decision. It’s therefore important that they are well written and demonstrate your ideas and concepts clearly and briefly. (Keep them short, as the jury might not be able to take the time to read long texts.)
More about the Bemis Center and Omaha
The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts was founded in 1981 by ceramicists Ree Schonlau, Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn and Lorne Falke. Initially the program focused mainly on bringing in artists from outside in order to offer workshops and exchange ideas with local artists, as well as to involve the local community in contemporary art processes. Artists, particularly sculptors and ceramicists, were invited to work in salvage yards and in collaboration with local industries (such as brick and metal factories). This idea came out of a need for artists to find workspaces and facilities. Omaha had a lot of industries at that time, as well as an abundance of empty warehouses.
The idea of integrating the local community still lives on, and is now represented by the galleries, the Bemis Underground program, the Open House events and Art Talk lectures, the outreach programs and collaborations with local schools, as well as many other public programs the Bemis Center organizes. Some resident artists also interact with the public within their individual art projects.
The Bemis Center was founded in the building of the former Bemis bag factory (from which it took its name), but is now located in a different building, one of the typical huge red brick warehouses which used to dominate downtown Omaha. The center is only one block away from historic Old Omaha, which consists of several blocks of original warehouses. Most of them now house galleries, antique shops, restaurants, bars and small stores that cater to tourists.
By European standards, Omaha is a very young city. It was founded as a tiny village in 1854, named after the Omaha Indian tribe, which used to occupy this area. A few years earlier, from 1846 –1848, the location that is now Omaha served as winter quarters for members of the Mormon Church on their way to their newly founded city in the desert of Utah, Salt Lake City. Situated at the Western shore of the Missouri River, Omaha was a significant landmark in the history of the settlement of the American West. During the days of Western expansion Omaha served as a gateway to the West for many pioneers. They arrived via steamboat on the Missouri from the south and via train from the Eastern states in order to embark on their long, often painful journeys by oxcarts and wagons across the prairie and the Great American desert to reach the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco. In the 1860s Omaha played a major role in the establishment of the first transcontinental railroad, which would connect the Pacific Coast to the old states of the Union in the East. Being the Eastern terminal of this important railroad line and having the Missouri River as a vein of transport for industrial supplies resulted in Omaha becoming an important center for traders, businessmen, manufacturers and the stock / meat industry.
Today Omaha is a typical American city, constantly growing, sprawling out towards the open lands to the West and forming a large urban center together with Lincoln (Nebraska’s state capital) and Council Bluffs (across the Missouri in the state of Iowa). Both Omaha and Lincoln have several colleges and major branches of the University of Nebraska.
The state of Nebraska is in the center of the United States, constituting part of the Great Plains that stretch between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. Originally most of Nebraska was covered with prairie grasses as tall as a man. There were barely any trees at all. Nowadays there is a lot of farming in Nebraska, particularly corn and grain. The state’s highest population is in the very east (Omaha and Lincoln) and thins out considerably towards the center and west.
Omaha and Council Bluffs both have several museums that address the days of westward movement, homesteading and pioneering, such as the Durham Western Heritage Museum close to the Bemis Center and the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs. In addition to the exhibitions at the Bemis Center there is a fine art museum in Omaha, the Joslyn Art Museum, which has a collection of art history, but also shows contemporary work.
The Omaha public library is accessible to Bemis Center artists. To obtain a library card you will need to ask the residency director for a letter which confirms that you are a resident artist. The library card is free and allows you to check out books, music, videos etc.
There are two health clubs near the Bemis Center (YMCA and Pinnacle Club) which offer memberships to Bemis Center residents at a reduced rate. Both have a swimming pool and offer classes, such as yoga, etc.
The local bus system MAT offers public transport in Omaha as well as to Council Bluffs. A time schedule can be found online (http://www.metroareatransit.com/) The Bemis Center also has several bikes artists can use to get around within the city.
Nebraska’s climate is typical for the Eastern Plains: very hot and humid in summer and very cold in winter (a lot of snow). Spring and fall are moderate and usually very pleasant.
It is important to be aware that Omaha / Lincoln / Council Bluffs do not meet the criteria of a large cosmopolitan area such as those found on the East Coast (New York, Boston etc.) and West Coast (Los Angeles, San Francisco). Omaha is a typical midwestern town and definitely does not by any means offer as much activity, culture and art as a major American city. Major art and culture centers relatively close (but still hours by car) would be Minneapolis, Chicago and further away the big cities on the East Coast. However, distances in the United States are long. If you wish to spend time in a major city, such as for instance New York, I would suggest doing that either before or after your residency at the Bemis Center.
What to bring?
You need to bring all your working tools and equipment, including computer, camera etc. The Bemis Center does have one computer station for email, however there is wireless internet access in the common area as well as in some of the studios. The Bemis Center has a wood and metal workshop, which is very well equipped. If your work requires special facilities or equipment, please discuss this with the Bemis Center well in advance of your residency. The staff is very helpful and resourceful and will try to accommodate your needs.
A lot of art materials can be bought locally, however, it is often cheaper and more convenient to mail-order your materials from online art stores.
For papers, paints, pens, glues etc.:
For CD, DVD, video media and other electronics:
If you are using electronic equipment, please keep in mind that while most AC power adapters run on 220 as well as 110 volts, US power outlets are not compatible with European plugs. I would advise getting adapters in your home country, or at a Radio Shack store in the US.
Although the Bemis Center pays a stipend, I would suggest bringing some US currency or US traveler checks to ensure you have enough money in the beginning of your residency. You can of course use credit cards in all stores, including online stores.
Health Insurance: If your health insurance does not cover you during trips to the United States, it is advisable to purchase a travel insurance plan in your home country before your departure. These can usually be purchased through travel agencies or banks and are often quite affordable.
Omaha has a small airport. However, coming from abroad you will probably fly into a major airport such as Chicago or Denver, where you will go through immigration and then connect to Omaha. I would recommend booking a ticket all the way through to Omaha in your home country. This is usually less expensive than buying a separate flight once you are in the United States. Omaha is also served by the railroad (Amtrak) from Chicago and Denver. Traveling by Amtrak is very pleasant; however, please keep in mind that the distances in the United States are vast. The train from Chicago to Omaha takes 8 1/2 hours, from Denver to Omaha 10 hours. From both locations there is only one train per day. There is also Greyhound bus service to Omaha from several major cities. However, Greyhound bus travel can be very slow and unreliable. From most places bus service is limited to only very few buses per day. Unless you want the experience of traveling by land on a train or bus, I would recommend flying to Omaha.
Omaha airport is very close to the Bemis Center. You can take a taxi (approximately a 10 – 15 minute ride). Both the Amtrak and the Greyhound stations are only a few blocks away from the Bemis Center.
Please be aware that depending on your country of origin you might need a visitor visa for the United States. Some countries participate in the visa waiver program, which allows you to visit the United States for a period of 90 days (this cannot be extended!). Contact the US Embassy in your country and inquire about the regulations for your particular country / citizenship.
My Experiences at the Bemis Center
I was an artist-in-residence at the Bemis Center twice (2003 and 2006). Both stays were absolutely amazing. I found the Bemis Center to be a perfect work environment, loved my studio and made great contacts with my fellow residents and the staff. We had very inspiring discussions about our artwork, art practice in general and other related topics. Some of these contacts resulted in lasting friendships. I found local people very friendly. My projects required interaction with local people, which turned out to be easy to accomplish, as people were not only happy to help but also highly excited to be involved in an arts project. I found the local community very generous and dedicated. My residencies at the Bemis Center were highly successful and unforgettable experiences. I recommend this residency to all artists who would like to work away from home in an international environment and who are used to living and working independently and are self-motivated.
This is how a recent resident described his residency
“My experience has been fantastic. Overall, it has been a very productive and focused period of studio time that has allowed me to explore new directions in my work. In addition to having a wonderful studio space with an uninterrupted block of time and support for me to make my work, I have benefited greatly from the relationships and exchanges that I have developed between the other artists who are in residence during the same period. For me, this has been one of the more invaluable and rewarding aspects of my time at the Bemis Center. Of my residency experiences, the Bemis Center has provided one of the best environments.”(Michael Barnes)
Sonja Hinrichsen, 2007 - 2011
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