Eateries as Art GalleriesJun 13, 2019 03:56PM ● By Anthony Flott
It’s not unusual, on a warm summer night, to see a line of people waiting to purchase a uniquely flavored ice-cream cone, such as Zen Blend Coffee, from Ted & Wally’s. But on the first Friday of the month, people can expect to wait longer than normal.
“We do see a surge in business,” owner Joseph Pittack says.
That surge comes from Benson First Friday, which includes music, visual art, and performance art, often on display or performing in the area restaurants and watering holes.
Don’t expect to see or hear masterpieces from Bach or Picasso. The type of performance art Pittack remembers best (especially from the infancy of Benson First Friday) isn’t exactly the stuff one finds in the halls of Joslyn Museum.
“Back in the early days,” Pittack says, “BFF was doing crazy things like mud wrestling.”
And that was OK.
“The shock value of it brought a lot of people out,” he says.
But seven years after its founding, Benson First Friday's collaboration with businesses, especially restaurants and bars, has made 60th and Maple streets a hot spot for hungry art lovers and for emerging and established artists.
“I can’t think of anywhere here that’s like Benson,” says Jeanne Ohira, Pittack’s sister and co-owner of Ted & Wally’s.
A walk through the central area of this known neighborhood on the first Friday of April offers dozens of artfully crafted eating and drinking options. Beer lovers could go to Benson Brewery for an ale and music by an Omaha-based songwriter and guitarist; sushi aficionados could view the Rad Women of Omaha exhibition while noshing on tuna rolls; and those adventurous enough to try a Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese at Star Deli were treated to an open-submission spring art exhibition.
The collaboration between artists and foodies was begun in 2012 by Alex Jochim and Jamie Hardy. Jochim was an artist seeking exposure for his work and that of fellow artists who also tended bar at Jake’s Cigars & Spirits (6206 Maple St.).
"At the time, there wasn’t much entry accessibility for artists in Omaha,” says Jochim, who still slings Singapores at Jake’s. “There was definitely an art scene, but for emerging, younger artists, there weren’t very many opportunities.”
He and Hardy planned the original Benson First Friday as a one-time gig. But it’s been going strong ever since, and is now a registered nonprofit that stages monthly events stuffed with art.
The Old Market also has First Fridays, but Benson offers more opportunity for up-and-coming artists to show, as opposed to those already established. Jay Muller, owner of Star Deli, says he believes it’s because it started out on a smaller scale—and it’s not as expensive.
“It’s more about the emerging community, including the businesses. A lot of them are locally owned and just starting out here,” he says. “The people who are the artists are also our patrons.”
Because Benson businesses are mostly locally owned, this means no need to climb the chain of command for approval of a new exterior mural or to host an exhibition.
“A lot of the buildings are owned by the business owners, so they’re more hands-on,” Ohira says.
Adds her brother Pittack: “Benson is probably more organic…that’s what sets them apart. They’re kind of a ground-up kind of thing.”
The lack of corporate cash also necessitates cooperation, meaning “The community there is more collaborative,” Ohira says.
A second factor prompting restaurants and others to connect with the art world is the value artists bring. At basement bar Kaitei, tattooers painted murals, and Ted & Wally’s boasts thank-you drawings from artists. Other pieces are for sale, hanging on the walls at no cost to the artist.
“You’re helping us by giving our space an aesthetic,” Pittack says. “And we’re helping you by giving you prime exposure with the number of people in our line.”
Muller stumbled onto the value of working with artists when the woman who is now his wife, Laurie Sewell-Muller, walked into Star Deli’s old location on Saddle Creek and offered to hang works by her and her art-student friends.
The move to Benson roughly six years ago strengthened their connection to the art scene. “[We] immediately had plans for it to be a gallery,” he says. “The first BFF was held inside the deli before we even opened for business.” He adds that they were lucky in finding the space, “before everything started blowing up.”
A third reason for success is recognition among artists that Benson is legit. Jochim has gone from dealing with a handful of artists to “incorporating hundreds” into BFF initiatives.
Among them is C.J. Esparrago, a tattoo artist and painter who has showcased his art at Jerry’s Bar, Daisy Jones’ Locker, and the Warlock Gallery.
“I love that it’s thriving, and I feel like that pull encourages more artists to show their work,” Esparrago says. “Benson as a whole has become one of my favorite parts of Omaha. Lots of creative people, different culinary experiences, and several great venues, DIY and otherwise. I think as a creative person it’s hard not to be drawn to an area like this.”
Knowing actual eyeballs will be seeing their work also puts a measure of pressure on artists, says David Utterback, head chef and owner of Yoshitomo.
“Artists can’t show the same show over and over here, so they have to be constantly producing new pieces,” Utterback says. “Sometimes you need the deadline.”
Esparrago says his first Benson show at Jerry’s helped him land his tattoo apprenticeship.
“Which was a huge deal for me,” Esparrago says. “Every show since has been a success. I’ve sold a few pieces and, most importantly, got my name out there a couple of times.”
The exposure starts early, too. Utterback’s Yoshitomo provides the empty bay he owns next to his restaurant as a gallery for Benson High School students.
“When I was a younger artist, the only places to show work was at school, and the thought of ever pursuing art beyond a hobby never felt realistic,” Utterback says. “I think letting students show here and seeing their work out in public is important to instill confidence and help them feel connected to the rest of the community.”
Esparrago—and many other artists—appreciate that generosity.
“These business owners are supporting both music and visual arts by opening their doors to the public for nothing more than the growth of Omaha’s art scene.”
Jochim agrees. “It’s a community effort, 100 percent.”
Visit bensonfirstfriday.com more information.This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.