Did you know Omaha Public Library (OPL) has an art gallery?
The Michael Phipps Gallery and its monthly exhibitions has called OPL’s Main Library home since 1997. Even though it’s located downtown, people are often surprised to find that the Library houses an art gallery. In 2013, OPL made it a goal to take the space to the next level.
If you’ve visited the space in recent months, it’s possible you’ve witnessed a transformation. Meet Alex Priest: curator, spatial thinker and designer. Priest has been the gallery’s volunteer curator since November 2013.
When Priest first approached Linda Trout, OPL Community Outreach and Partnership Manager, with an offer to help with the Michael Phipps Gallery exhibits, she was surprised. “No one with his credentials had ever offered their help. The timing was perfect, [as] the library director had just asked me to work more with the gallery,” Trout said.
By definition a curator is “a keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection.” According to Priest, being a curator “is confronting the difficult questions of both the viewer and the artists that advance our world, culture and society forward.” It entails working directly with artists and art in a specific context, which is key. “Without a context, art is just decoration … However, if the curator is really keen to the surroundings, a real power can arise,” he said.
Priest discovered his passion for art while studying abroad in Amsterdam in 2010 whilst a student at Iowa State University. An exhibition there opened his eyes to art. “I started wondering why I felt so excited about art, and it was clear. For the first time I actually felt art. I got it.”
However, the public library is what built the foundation of Priest’s passion-based career. “In my youth in rural Iowa, libraries provided me with a seemingly unobtainable visual, cultural and intellectual database. I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and books. Libraries hold culture and books in one place that is adaptable. Volunteering [for the gallery] allows me the opportunity to give back to a place that conceptually brought me where I am today.”
Priest emphasizes that art is for everyone and anyone, and what better place than a public library which attracts, and can engage, a wide audience? “It doesn’t matter why you are [at the library], who you are with, your age, race, sexuality, gender, bank account, housing situation, etc. This gives the gallery a real charge, a really different edge that, in the end, gives power to art.” He says real art needs these people. “It needs their thoughts, past experiences and participation.”
Trout couldn’t be more pleased at how Priest has aided in evolving the gallery’s mission and influence by understanding the need for art in a public space. “Alex has curatorial education, experience and most importantly he has a passion for libraries. Not only can Alex hang an exhibit that will put the artist’s work in the best light, he creates an inviting atmosphere in the gallery for the public to enjoy.
“Working with Alex has been a great learning experience. He has [great] ideas. I feel very lucky that he is willing to devote his time and knowledge to the Phipps Gallery and to OPL,” Trout concluded. Priest has benefited greatly from the partnership, too. “I am incredibly grateful to volunteer with the Library. This ongoing experience has allowed me to develop as a curator and cultural worker. It is a challenging space that could, if not activated correctly, go unnoticed. As we continue to develop the gallery’s programming and spatial organization, the space now captures the zeal that the Library is capable of. It is an exciting time for the Library and the Michael Phipps Gallery.”
This partnership has been a win-win, and you can’t beat that.
The Michael Phipps Gallery is located on the first floor of Main Library, 215 S. 15th St. It is open during regular library hours and is free to the public. For a current list of exhibitions, click here. For more information on the gallery, contact Linda Trout at 402.444.4838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.