The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts was created by artists, for artists.
In 1981, founders Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn, Lorne Falk and Ree Schonlau established the organization as an Artist-In-Industry program called Alternative Worksite, which placed artists at industrial sites. It soon became clear that the gift of time, space and support fulfilled a vital need for artists at the leading edge of their disciplines.
With the help of public and private partners, renovation began on the vacant Bemis Bag Warehouse in Omaha’s historic Old Market. In honor of its new home, the organization was renamed The Bemis Foundation. The startup Artist-in-Residence program served as a laboratory for artists to research, experiment and take creative risks free from expectation. In 1995, the organization moved into its current headquarters, the 100,000 sq. ft. McCord-Brady wholesale grocery warehouse and became the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
Quickly gaining a reputation as an international leader in the field of artist communities, the Bemis Center began expanding programming to further support artists. The organization created an ambitious Exhibitions Program, developing projects with international artists that focus on site-specific, immersive and socially engaged work. A Community Arts program was designed to ignite civic engagement through the development of significant public art projects, education initiatives and community collaborations. These additions have supported artists' process and catalyzed their work to engage and challenge the public.
The Bemis Center’s Artist-in-Residence program has grown increasingly competitive, with over 1,200 artists applying for 36 residencies each year. In response to this growing demand, in 2009 the Bemis Center launched the Building | Bemis capital campaign. This $2.6 million expansion included the addition of five new live/work studios, a 2,000 sq. ft. multipurpose space, and a loading dock featuring an urban garden. Construction was completed in October 2011 with the renovation of the 9,000 sq. ft. Okada Center for Sculpture and Ceramics.
During the past three decades, nearly 900 artists-in-residence have called the Bemis Center home, participating in global conversations at the forefront of contemporary culture. Today, the Bemis Center remains an artist-centered organization whose sole mission is to support contemporary artists of exceptional talent. That fundamental value is why we perpetually strive to give the institution to artists, empowering them to become vibrant social, cultural and economic transformers.