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North Omaha nonprofit founder: Exclusionary arts ‘consortium’ perpetuates racism in city’s cultural sector

Brigitte McQueen’s blog post about Arts Omaha sparked some members to walk away.
(AP)
(AP)(Associated Press Graphic)
Published: Apr. 12, 2021 at 9:23 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The founder of a north Omaha nonprofit sparked conversation among the city’s arts community after stating in a blog that “the white supremacy culture of Omaha’s cultural sector” had made the rules of membership for a nebulous group of 12 local arts nonprofits — which were awarded the bulk of CARES Act funding set aside for Douglas County’s arts, entertainment, and cultural nonprofits — a moving target.

In a blog post published on Friday, Brigitte McQueen, founder of The Union for Contemporary Art on North 24th Street, said a proposal submitted to the county on behalf of Arts Omaha resulted in an inequitable split of $10 million in CARES Act funding, sending most of the financial support to a dozen organizations — plus CHI Health Center arena, according to the agenda item filed with the county — and leaving the rest of the city’s arts community to vie for a little more than a third of the available funds.

In the funding request put forth to Douglas County Commissioners in August 2020, Arts Omaha requested $5.6 million in CARES Act funds on behalf of its 12 members. The membership was listed as including: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, The Durham Museum, Film Streams, Joslyn Art Museum, KANEKO, Omaha Children’s Museum, Omaha Community Playhouse, Omaha Performing Arts, Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha, The Rose Theater, “and most recently” Lauritzen Gardens.

McQueen said in her Facebook post about the article that she wasn’t calling on Omaha residents to stop supporting those organizations. Rather, she said she was calling on those who support those organizations “to be better.”

“I would argue that Arts Omaha is not working to benefit the sector, they are working to benefit their own organizations at the expense of those working to create an accessible, equitable, vibrant cultural community in Omaha.”

That seemed to some to be the case in the CARES Act request.

“No other cultural institution was engaged in the development of this request — no other director was informed of the petition, or subsequently, informed of the public hearing regarding it,” McQueen’s Medium.com post states.

Beyond the two paragraphs in the CARES Act request, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what Arts Omaha is — it doesn’t have a website or social media account to reference, as McQueen also noted on her Facebook post — which has since been removed or hidden — about the blog article.

In its application to the county, Arts Omaha describes itself as “a consortium of the largest nonprofit arts and cultural institutions in Douglas County, Nebraska, who meet regularly to share information and coordinate and lead initiatives that benefit the arts sector.”

The description goes on to say that the 12-member “informal consortium” was formed after Omaha Arts was dissolved in the early 2000s, stating “there was a desire for organizations that were similar in budget and scope to meet as needs arose, and to keep the group small enough to engender meaningful dialogue.”

McQueen, however, described Arts Omaha as ”a segregated collective of white executives, perpetuating a culture of white supremacy — who decided against diversifying their ranks by adding eligible BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of color] leadership and working towards equity in our cultural sector — choosing, instead, to change the rules so that they could maintain the group’s segregation.”

One of the rules she references is a parenthetical in the last line of the consortium’s description, where it notes in its petition to the county that in order to be part of the consortium, “the current minimum budget is $2 million.”

McQueen took issue with that qualification.

“Until recently, the eligibility requirement to be a member of Arts Omaha was running an organization with a budget of at least $1 million,” her blog post states. “I say recently, because I believe that the requirement was raised to $2 million to hide the fact that its members were discriminating against myself and the organization I founded.”

McQueen said in her post that The Union was never approached for “membership” into Arts Omaha when the requirement was at the $1 million level, a status she said her organization had for four years before she asked about the omission and “was told by members that no discrimination had taken place.”

But no further explanation was given.

“Despite meeting the eligibility requirement of the group for years, The Union was never invited to participate, while smaller organizations with white leadership were invited to join,” she wrote.

McQueen said she tried for several months during the pandemic to ferret out a response.

“Over the past nine months, I have approached several of its members to question the group’s segregation and ask why I, in my role of director of The Union, was never approached about membership, despite my organization meeting their one known requirement to join,” she wrote. “My questions have been met with silence.”

As a result, McQueen said The Union “would no longer be collaborating with or supporting the work of organizations sitting at Arts Omaha’s segregated table.”

$10 million split 70/30?

In the end, county commissioners gave the Omaha Community Foundation the green light to distribute $10 million to local arts organizations struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bulk of those funds — $7 million — were dispersed to “members” of Arts Omaha, leaving $3 million for the rest of the city’s arts organizations, McQueen says. CHI Health Center Arena was also listed in the request, and a supporting letter from the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority, emphasizing the arena’s significance to the local economy, was also attached.

“The terms of that grant, as dictated by the state, were so restrictive that the majority of Omaha’s small/mid-sized organizations, including The Union, were unable to receive even one dollar of the $3 million designated to help sustain our organizations during the pandemic,” McQueen said in her post.

Douglas County’s list of CARES Act grant recipients, however, lists The Union as receiving a $297,000 stimulus grant. According to an Omaha Community Foundation spokesperson, that amount was well above the range of grants awarded to most smaller arts and culture organizations with operating budgets between $100,000 and $1 million, which received between $49,500 and $165,000. OCF also noted that the grants dispersed to smaller organizations amounted to a higher percentage of their budgets than that of larger organizations.

Comparatively, at year’s end, the Arts Omaha organizations received $7.3 million in CARES Act funds via expense-based grants as well as stimulus grants.

“While the impact of the pandemic has taken a toll on every organization in our cultural sector, regardless of size, it’s safe to say that COVID wasn’t going to bankrupt Omaha Performing Arts. We weren’t going to lose the Joslyn Art Museum,” McQueen wrote, noting that the majority of the Arts Omaha organizations have endowments and reserve funds. “Not one Arts Omaha executive director needed to pick up a second (or third) job to make ends meet because they took a pay cut to keep their organization afloat last year… but that is exactly what was happening at many of Omaha’s cultural institutions. The amount of CARES Act support that could have financed entire 2020 budgets for some organizations, Omaha Children’s Museum requested for marketing and programs.”

McQueen declined 6 News’ request for an interview Monday, saying: “I feel like I’ve said everything I needed in my article,” and suggesting that a broader discussion on the topic should be left to the leadership of the Arts Omaha organizations.

Organizations respond

During the course of the weekend, two of the 12 organizations listed posted direct responses to McQueen’s article on their own social media accounts.

The Rose Theater responded hours later, posting on Friday, that it “acknowledges having been a participant in Arts Omaha and must be held accountable for the racial harm that was done by the group. We apologize for having remained in a group with others who do not share our values. ... Our silence was wrong.”

We are sharing this article to amplify this clear naming of a wrong. The Rose Theater acknowledges having been a...

Posted by The Rose Theater Omaha on Friday, April 9, 2021

Film Streams on Sunday posted a response on Facebook from its executive director, Casey Logan, stating outright that it was “no longer an Arts Omaha participant,” calling McQueens’s criticisms of Arts Omaha “important and valid ... particularly its exclusionary nature and the impact of perpetuating a culture of white supremacy.”

From Film Streams Interim Executive Director Casey Logan: Brigitte McQueen raises important and valid criticisms about...

Posted by Film Streams on Sunday, April 11, 2021

Lindy Hoyer, executive director of the Omaha Children’s Museum, posted a statement Sunday in a local women’s Facebook group along with her email address in lieu of engaging in debate in the comments string.

Saying not everything in McQueen’s article was “accurately represented,” she was choosing to remain with Arts Omaha, at the encouragement of “certain board members,” and “advocate from within.”

Hoyer’s full statement there read:

“I feel the need to disclose that I am one of the directors called in this article penned by Brigitte McQueen. I have represented my organization within Arts Omaha for many years. Acknowledging that much of what is stated is painfully true, not everything in this article is accurately represented. I did consider withdrawing from this group when others began, but at the encouragement of certain board members, I have chosen to remain and continue to have a seat at the table to continue advocating for inclusion and change. It has been a long debate, and my hope is that the exposure Brigitte has given this will prompt actions to bring about that change. I am choosing to advocate from within, which I realize sets me and my organization up for criticism and judgement [sic].

I will not engage in a back and forth discussion on this post. But if you would like to have a conversation directly with me, please reach out at lhoyer@ocm.org. I will listen to what you have to say. I will hear you.”

Lindy Hoyer, Omaha Children's Museum

The Omaha Community Playhouse on Monday also posted a response from its executive director that also included an apology for any participation — by action or inaction — in perpetuating “an environment of exclusion in the Omaha arts community.”

A Message from Katie Broman, OCP Executive Director: Last week, Brigitte McQueen, Founder and Executive Director at The...

Posted by Omaha Community Playhouse on Monday, April 12, 2021

This is a developing story. Stay with 6 News for updates.

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