Once More With Feeling

Loves Jazz & Arts Center transitions forward

Rumors about the impending demise of a north Omaha cultural institution began flying last fall when Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N. 24th St., took an extended break from normal operations. Even the hint of trouble alarmed the African American community and city-county officials, who view LJAC as a linchpin for an envisioned 24th and Lake revival. The North Omaha Development Project, the Empowerment Network and others target the area as a potential cultural-tourism district. The reports, while dead wrong, were not unreasonable given that during a nine-month hiatus LJAC made no announcement concerning why it ceased exhibitions and programs. Or why it was open only by appointment and for rental. It turns out the inactivity was not due to financial crisis as some feared; rather, the staff and board undertook a funder-prompted strategic planning and building process. LJAC also underwent an audit, which board chair Ernest White says “came out clean.” The result of it all, White said, is a restructured and refocused organization whose makeover is in progress. For the first time in months LJAC is regularly open to the public, presenting gallery displays and live music events. White could have quelled negative speculation by offering an explanation through traditional or social media. The American National Bank vice president chose silence, he says, to distance LJAC from the rumor mill that dogged the nearby Great Plains Black History Museum. While questions went unanswered about its dormancy, LJAC participated with other nonprofits in the Omaha Community Foundation's capacity-building initiative. White says the monthly sessions, led by OCF consultant Pete Tulipana, critically examined staffing, administration, memberships and programs. White says no funding was withheld as a stick for LJAC to undergo the review, though some funds are “pending” its compliance with recommended changes. (The LJAC would not identify any specifics in terms of pending funds.) Understaffed and under-funded since its 2005 opening, LJAC hurt itself, White says, by doing a poor job marketing, not signing up members, keeping inconsistent hours and, on at least two occasions, losing approved grant money by failing to file required paperwork. “There were some things not done, there were some inefficiencies,” he says. “We need to do a better job, we need to be open when we say we’re going to be open, we need to be accessible, and those are things I think we’re already a long ways to fixing.” Despite “great” exhibits and programs, White says few people knew of them. The review process, he says, is "brutally honest — here's your strengths, here's your weaknesses. They make you do a 10-year plan. They challenge you." The need for a seasoned administrator led White to ask Neville Murray, executive director since LJAC’s inception, to relinquish that role and remain as curator. When Murray declined, White appointed Omaha entrepreneur Tim Clark as interim executive director. Clark, who assumed the post in April, says board development is a major priority. He’s looking for board members "to serve in three areas — advocacy, policy and fund raising. We really need to focus more on getting individuals on the board who can help with the fund development. In these very challenging times fund raising is an every day deal. It has to be a board-executive director partnership, and you have to have individuals who have some reach — the capacity to give and go get. They've got to have access to dollars." "This place needs money,” says Clark, “and every single board member has to step up and do their part. You can’t ask anybody else to help you if your board is not helping." The LJAC board continues to be in flux. Efforts going forward, says Clark, revolve around “trying to retool, build the infrastructure for capacity, for sustainability long term.” He says, “The strategy now will be more looking at how do we build partnerships with school systems, getting more youth involved. We've brought on Janet Ashley as program director to help look at our Loves Art School and partnering with targeted elementary schools this summer.” White says funders want the center to do more educational programming and stay on mission as an art gallery that celebrates black culture and jazz music. “When people give us money,” says Clark, “we've got to give them a return on their investment. They can hold us accountable — we've just got to live up to expectations.” He says LJAC’s securing sponsors and strategic partners to help it realize its potential as a public attraction. “I think we have a product and a story to tell. We just have to be better at telling that story. We have to be more proactive. I think we’re positioned now to move forward. I’m excited about its future possibilities. I think if we’re successful it stimulates everything around us. “Have we made some mistakes? Yes, we have. We have some challenges before us. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, but we’re going to roll up our sleeves and tackle them.” Acknowledging the center’s transitional mode, Clark says, “We’re open for business, but we’re not making a big splash of that until we know we can sustain that. We want to do the work within first. We want to be whole.” “We want to be viable,” adds White. LJAC’s new Jazz Fridays series launches May 6, from 5 to 8 p.m., with For the Occasion. Two new exhibits are in the works. For more information, call 402.502.5291.

posted at 10:12 pm
on Wednesday, May 04th, 2011

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