Lincoln Arts Council Executive Director Deb Weber will look you in the eye when she says it. Her conviction is obvious.
"The arts are for everyone," she says. "Not just for those who can afford them."
In a discussion with Weber and her principal lieutenants at the council, the word "accessibility" keeps coming up, and it's clear that – as the council turns 50 – making sure the arts are available to everyone in Lincoln has become their raison d'être. Over the course of its history, the Lincoln Arts Council has gone from an organization trying to spread the word about the arts in Lincoln to an integral arts hub, connecting people from all backgrounds to learn from, engage with and understand Lincoln's arts.
For Weber, the arts are a foundation.
“We believe the arts are a basic human right,” she says. “To say that some people can’t experience the arts, it’s just not right.”
Although it is sometimes confused as a local governmental agency, the Lincoln Arts Council, founded in 1968, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. It has grown into one of the biggest arts councils in the state, said Lori McAlister, Lincoln Arts Council program manager. In 2006, then-Mayor Coleen Seng designated the council as the official arts agency for the City of Lincoln. Now housed downtown in the Nonprofit Hub, the council is partially funded through the City of Lincoln, but also receives funding from grants, corporate sponsors and individual donations.
One of its principal fundraisers, the Mayor's Arts Awards, is also celebrating a milestone year: 2018 marks its 40th anniversary. It originally started with a single award – as a way, Weber says, to "recognize a person within the arts community." This year, among the 16 award recipients to be recognized May 1 are many longtime notables of the Lincoln arts community: L. Kent Wolgamott, longtime critic from the Lincoln Journal Star, for literary achievement; The Burkholder Project and Anne Burkholder, for outstanding arts organization; and artist and gallery owner Julia Noyes, who is being honored with a Legacy of the Arts Award. Mayor’s Arts Awards reservations can be made at artscene.org.
“We have so much to celebrate in Lincoln about the arts," Weber says, "and so many wonderful people who work in the arts."
Beyond recognizing outstanding contributions to Lincoln art, never before has the council been so engaged and focused on making the arts in Lincoln "relevant and accessible," in the words of Development Director Troy Gagner. Even when Weber joined the organization 17 years ago, it was still mostly focused on getting the word out about arts events, she says.
"It looks a lot different now than it did back then," Weber says.
Now, the council has shifted its priorities to focusing more on engaging Lincolnites.
“Everything we do boils down to accessibility to the arts,” Gagner says.
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Exposure to the arts, everyone at the Lincoln Arts Council would tell you, can be life changing. The council currently offers a variety of programs that involve people from all facets of Lincoln's community. In 2010, LAC started Art Makes Me Smart, a program connecting students with artists for meaningful interactions and educational opportunities. Research in child development has shown that education in the arts can stimulate intellectual growth, Weber says.
But the program is more than just about education. It's also about helping kids find a place to belong.
“There are a lot of children who find themselves through the arts, and we want those kids to find themselves," Gagner says. "Maybe sports isn’t their thing, and some of the other opportunities they have in school don't resonate with them, isn’t where they fit, but the arts are where they fit in.”
It's important for the families, too, McAlister adds. She notes that plays, and not tests, for example, draw family members to visit a school.
On that theatrical note, the council is currently sponsoring a play in conjunction with BLIXT, a duo of arts educators who work with Art Makes Me Smart. The play, "Snowcatcher," takes place during the infamous Children's Blizzard of 1888.
“All of these opportunities are focused on helping people see where they fit into the world, through expression," Weber says. "When people are able to speak about what their dreams are, their hopes, their fears, and to really dig into that through expression, then we are able to help the community.”
Of course, the council has also been responsible for some other notable art projects that provided art to beautify the city itself. In 2003, the council embarked on the iconic Tour de Lincoln project; many of those colorful bicycles are still on display throughout the city. Stories of Home, a program led by Pepón Osorio, matched families – broadly defined, and representative of Lincoln's diversity – with artists, and resulted in sculptures representing the individual family's story.
It's not lost on Weber, McAlister or Gagner that there is also a practical importance to the arts.
“The arts are just integral in a person’s life, so we have changed our focus to helping the community understand how the arts can benefit them,” Weber says.
A vibrant, developing arts community can also be important to bringing, and retaining, young people in Lincoln, Weber says. There are significant economic impacts as well. A recent study by Americans for the Arts – for which the Lincoln Arts Council collected data – pegged the economic impact of the arts in Lincoln at $99 million for fiscal year 2015. According to the study, the arts supported almost 3,000 jobs in the city.
It's this kind of pragmatic ethos that informs how the Lincoln Arts Council conducts its business. It seems well-suited for the future, which includes planning for a potential endowment, a new logo and branding process, and more partnering with other Lincoln organizations – all to enhance its mission.
“We can’t make people enjoy the arts,” Gagner says. “But we can make sure everybody has an opportunity to if they want to.”
Five decades in, the Lincoln Arts Council has ensured that the arts in Lincoln are more widespread and essential than ever.