Arts and Culture in Nebraska
Known more for its rural farmlands and pioneer history than its fine arts offerings, the state of Nebraska does feature some homegrown talent in the arenas of art and culture. The capital city of Omaha and the city of Lincoln, each home to a branch of the University of Nebraska, host diverse and successful art institutions and local performing ensembles as well as touring artists and productions. The cultural life in smaller Nebraska towns tends to center around artist cooperative galleries and community museums within historical sites or monuments.
Professional music and dance companies from Nebraska are few and far between. However, many large theaters in Omaha and Lincoln host touring companies and soloists from New York, Chicago, and around the world.
The prime outlet for classical music in Nebraska is the Omaha Symphony. Established in 1921, the symphony gained a new music director, Thomas Wilkins, in 2005. The year also marked the ensemble’s move into the city’s premier Holland Performing Arts Center. The symphony's repertoire consists of classical masterworks, symphonic pop, orchestral rock, chamber music, and programming for children.
The Omaha Symphonic Chorus performs music across genres and eras. Most known for its work with the Omaha Symphony, the 90-member voice ensemble also interprets contemporary work, folk music, international music, and a cappella pieces.
The Nebraska Choral Arts Society oversees five choirs: the Masterworks Choir and four ensembles comprised of children and teenagers. The choirs perform in churches and halls in and around Omaha.
Since 1927, the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra, originally known as the Lincoln Little Symphony Orchestra, has performed classical concerts comprised of local professional musicians and augmented by celebrity guest artists.
Opera Omaha has the unique distinction of being Nebraska’s sole professional opera company. Since 1958, the ensemble has produced original productions at Omaha’s historic Orpheum Theater, as well as smaller presentations in community locales.
While classical dance academies thrive in Nebraska, the state has one main company that still survives financially. The Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company, representing the 1989 union of the Lincoln City Ballet and the Ballet Midwest Dance Company, stages professional productions only a couple of times per year, but supplements its spare performance calendar with educational presentations, special events, and workshops.
Once a year, the Omaha Modern Dance Collective organizes DanceFest, an invitational contemporary dance festival featuring regional ensembles and artists.
Omaha’s history as a diverse, bustling capital has produced several notable museums, including some multicultural collections. The Loves Jazz & Arts Center, located in historic north Omaha, sits in an area that once anchored a popular African American commercial district. The center holds the Preston Love Gallery, exhibiting artwork by and about African Americans, as well as a performance art area and a digital media lab.
Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum opened in 1931 and serves as one of the city’s main venues for visual art. A collection spanning antiquity to the present emphasizes 19th- and 20th-century paintings from Europe and America. Highlights include work by El Greco, Monet, Degas, Grant Wood, and Jackson Pollock, as well as a series of Karl Bodmer watercolors and prints documenting his journey, in the early 1800s, to the Missouri River frontier.
El Museo Latino, in Omaha, is the Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum. Temporary shows supplement the permanent holdings showcasing the work of local and international Latino artists. The museum sponsors bilingual educational programs, workshops, lectures, and concerts.
Located in Omaha’s historic Union Station, the Durham Museum has permanent exhibits highlighting regional history.
At the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, in Omaha’s historic Old Market neighborhood, several artists-in-residency from around the world showcase their work in second-floor studios. In addition, three galleries on site host contemporary art shows.
The University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL) campus holds a bevy of visual art institutions. The Great Plains Art Museum features changing exhibits of Western art and a collection of work by Albert Bierstadt, Karl Bodmer, and contemporary Plains Indian and American Indian artists. The Sheldon Museum of Art holds 12,000 artworks, including pieces by Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Mary Cassatt, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery exhibits a diverse array of art textiles and apparel from around the world. The Lentz Center for Asian Cultureshows Asian art and artifacts in a dramatic gallery space.
Outside the UNL campus, Lincoln has other cultural offerings. The Burkholder Project, in the historic and colorful Haymarket District, holds 36 art studios, artist lofts, and three floors of gallery spaces.
Lincoln’s Lux Center for the Arts is an arts and education complex and home to the Gladys M. Lux Museum. Gladys Lux, an artist and art professor at Wesleyan University, purchased the building, which once served as city hall, to display her personal collections of historical and antique dolls, fine art prints, glass paperweights, quilts, sewing notions, looms, toys, and antique furniture.
While largely a history museum, the Nebraska State Historical Society's Museum of Nebraska History in Lincoln also holds art and artifacts reflecting the culture and traditions of Plains and American Indians.
Beyond Nebraska’s main cities, the state has several major visual arts institutions. The Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney began in 1976 with only 30 pieces. Now the museum boasts a major collection of 5,000 works of art representing artist-explorers such as George Catlin and modern illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton. The museum also has an impressive group of wildlife art by John James Audubon. The Yanney Skylight Gallery and the Cliff Hillegass Sculpture Garden provide outdoor exhibition spaces.
In Seward, the Marxhausen Gallery of Art exhibits regional and American artists. The Koenig Collection, on permanent display, represents artists from the last 100 years.
Showcasing Nebraska’s rural and agricultural roots, the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City is situated in the boyhood town of Dale Nichols, a notable agrarian artist. Among the artists represented are John Steuart Curry, Robert Gwathmey, Birger Sandzen, Robert Wesley Amick, and Charles Banks Wilson.
An only-in-Nebraska experience, the Stones & Bones Gallery and Emporium, in the town of Hershey, contains an assemblage of Western and wildlife art and artifacts. Among the holdings are Stone Age objects from rural west Nebraska.
Nebraska has not produced many musicians who have earned fame beyond its borders. The state celebrates the life and work of Pulitzer Prize winner Howard Hanson (1896-1981) by preserving Hanson’s childhood home in the town of Wahoo. The Hanson House showcases memorabilia. Hanson wrote several symphonies, chamber pieces, band songs, choral works, and selections for keyboard. He also composed Merry Mount, the first fully American opera, which premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1934.
Other notable Nebraska musicians include vocalist Ruth Etting (1896-1976), whose life inspired the 1955 Doris Day film, Love Me or Leave Me; Paul Revere (b. 1938), who founded the rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders in the late 1950s; and alternative rock artist Matthew Sweet (b. 1964).
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
Theater and performing arts in Nebraska lean toward two types: spectacle-filled touring productions in restored historic theaters, and small community-oriented institutions presenting established, commercial work.
In Omaha, the Holland Center has a state-of-the-art sound system to best showcase work by world-renowned vocalists and ensembles. The Orpheum Theater, known as Omaha’s "golden palace" is a 2,600-seat proscenium theater. The 1927 building has majestic interiors in the lobby and stage areas. Touring artists, dance troupes, and Opera Omaha perform here.
A lively mix of regional, national, and international ballet companies, musicals, classical ensembles, and solo artists keep the stage occupied at the Lied Center for Performing Arts, located on the University of Nebraska at Lincoln campus.
Restored to its 1929 design, Lincoln’s Rococo Theatre hosts national and local acts. The Nebraska Repertory Theatre performs in two Lincoln locations. The professional theater group presents challenging work and hires equity actors. The Lincoln Community Playhouse stages eight shows in its season, drawing support from community organizations and artists.
The small town of Manley is home to the Lofte Community Theater. Founded by a drama teacher in the local Weeping Water Public School system in 1976, the theater stands in a renovated barn donated by Howard Rathe. The company, known as the Born-in-a-Barn Players, consists of local residents of all backgrounds and ages.
Nebraska’s oldest repertory theater is the Brownville Village Theatre. Its short summer season features farces, romantic comedies, and murder mysteries.
Notable figures in the film industry who were either born or worked in Nebraska include Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Swoosie Kurtz, Johnny Carson, James Coburn, Sandy Dennis,Montgomery Clift, Nick Nolte, Dick Cavett, and Hilary Swank.
Since 2005, the Omaha Film Festival has given Nebraskans the opportunity to view independent, alternative, and artistic films. The annual event features 60 screenings, culled from 400 entries in the areas of narrative feature film, documentaries, short films, and animated short films. The festival also devotes attention to filmmakers from and films made in Nebraska.
Of all the writers associated with Nebraska, no other captures its spirit better than Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Willa Cather (1873–1947). Cather moved to the small Nebraska town of Red Cloud at the age of ten, and shared her first impressions with a newspaper reporter years later: "I would not know how much a child’s life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron." Cather is known for her novels My Ántonia and O Pioneers, and the town of Red Cloud celebrates the author’s legacy with the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation. The organization conducts tours of seven restored historic structures, including the writer’s childhood home.
The Bess Streeter Aldrich House and Museum in Elmwood showcases antique furniture, a flower garden, a lily pond, and a video presentation about Aldrich. Author Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954), one of the highest-paid female writers of her time, wrote over 200 short stories and 13 novels, mainly about pioneer life.
Another standout in Nebraska literary history is Clifton Hillegass (1918-2001), who founded theCliffsNotes literary study guide series. He began the business in his basement, authoring 16 pamphlets on the work of William Shakespeare.
Other writers born in or associated with Nebraska include novelist and biographer Mari Sandoz (1896-1966), one-time U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (b. 1939), science fiction writer and founder of the Church of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986), and best-selling fantasy writer Terry Goodkind(b. 1948).
One of Nebraska’s most visited roadside attractions, Carhenge was built by six Nebraska families during a family reunion in the town of Alliance. The artists painted old cars stone gray and assembled them in a grassy field in the same formation as Stonehenge. They supplemented the site with sculptures and assemblages of car parts.
In Ho-Chunk Plaza in the town of Winnebago, the Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden and Cultural Plaza features 12 statues, one dedicated to each of the Winnebago Tribe’s clans.
Painter Robert Henri (1865-1929), who only lived in Nebraska briefly, is nevertheless celebrated at theRobert Henri Museum and Historical Walkway in Cozad, his childhood home. Henri led the formation of the Ash Can group of painters, who emphasized realism and freedom of expression in their work.
Outsider artist Emory Blagdon (1907-1986) led an isolated life in rural Nebraska. He created a fantastical series of work he called Healing Machines, composed of various bits of metal, hardware, and lights.
Wanda Ewing (b. 1970), an art and art history professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, explores race, sexuality, and identity in her paintings. Her Bougie series consisted of satirical covers for a pretend beauty magazine.
Based in Lincoln and born in North Platte, Leah Sorensen-Hayes applies nontraditional techniques to quilt making.
Lincoln’s Nebraska State Capitol building was built between 1922 and 1932. Architects describe the edifice as the country’s first vernacular state capital. The 400-foot curved tower features artwork chronicling Nebraska’s natural, social, and political evolution.
Located in Omaha, St. Cecilia Cathedral was designed by architect Thomas Rogers Kimball in 1905 in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style. The cathedral now hosts the Cathedral Arts Project, which features visual arts and music, most with a religious or spiritual focus.
Minden’s Harold Warp Pioneer Village features 26 buildings including a sod house, one-room schoolhouse, Pony Express station, depot, 1884 church, and general store.
Dwight Assumption Parish, Chapel, and Grottoes, located in Dwight, has the notable distinction of being the world’s smallest chapel. Rock gardens, grottoes, and fountains, built in the 1930s, surround the chapel.
Omaha’s Joslyn Castle is Nebraska’s first arboretum designated a historical landmark. John McDonald designed the 1903 Scottish house, featuring 35 rooms, and Jens Jensen designed the conservatory.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
Throughout the state of Nebraska, handicraft and folk art traditions thrive. Pioneer crafts such asspinning, weaving, quilting, and needlework demonstrate an enduring interest in textile art. In addition, artisan skills such as hand-tooling saddles, beading jewelry, carving musical instruments, and creating architectural embellishments reveal a devotion to finely made utilitarian items.
Nebraska’s agrarian and rural influences have resulted in folk traditions such as dowsing, also known as water witching; rituals around predicting weather; and farming practices.
Several community museums, historical sites, and artist cooperatives feature local handicraft traditions, folk art, and demonstrations of craft making. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln exhibits 3,000 quilts, some from the 1700s. At Grand Island’s Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, exhibits chronicle folk life and customs of Nebraska pioneers, the Old West, and American Indians. In the late spring and summer, docents in period costume recount stories and traditions.
Contemporary handicraft is the focus at Omaha’s Hot Shops Art Center. Over 80 artisans demonstrate and sell blown glass, ceramics, cast bronze objects, and metal art in the 92,000-square-foot complex.
Folk performing arts thrive in Lincoln, thanks to the efforts of the Lincoln Association for Traditional Arts. The organization presents folk and acoustic music and dance that reflect regional traditions. Special events showcase the work of local songwriters, musicians, storytellers, folk dancers, and spoken word artists.
On September 19, 1997, Nebraska governor Ben Nelson declared that square dance would be the state’s official folk dance. Although square dance has its roots in Great Britain, Nebraska and the surrounding region made the dance its own, with pioneers using square dancing as a diversion from the hardships they experienced. To this day, many people engage in square dancing and its related folk dance forms such as contra dancing, line dancing, clogging, and round dancing. Every September, the town of Hastings hosts the Annual State Square & Round Dance Convention at the Adams County Fairgrounds.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
In 1973, a citizen group founded the Nebraska I-80 Bicentennial Sculpture Project, with the vision of creating several large-scale sculptures to erect along Interstate 80. Completed three years later, the project features sculptures spaced along the 500-mile (805-km) interstate and at rest areas. The completed works include George Baker’s The Nebraska Wind Sculpture near Kearney, Richard Field’sThe Memorial to the American Bandshell at Platte River eastbound, Bradford Graves’ Crossing the Plains at York westbound, Linda Howard’s Up/Over at Ogallala westbound, Anthony Padovano’sNebraskan Gateway at Brady westbound, John Raimondi’s Erma’s Desire at Grand Island eastbound, Hans Van de Bobenkamp’s Roadway Confluence at Sidney westbound, and Paul Von Ringelheim’s Arrival at Blue River eastbound.
-World Trade Press