Two Couples, Two Eras, Two Galleries
Jun 17, 2019 04:27PM
By Kara Schweiss
George and Sarah Joslyn arrived in Omaha in 1880. Bob and Roberta Rogers arrived to the city in the late 1950s. Although the two couples were from different eras and never met, they both embraced their adopted city, were successful entrepreneurs, and supported the arts—especially the visual arts—but didn’t create art themselves. Most importantly, they both created lasting legacies: the Joslyns through Joslyn Art Museum and Joslyn Castle; and the Rogerses through Gallery 72, now transitioning to a namesake nonprofit gallery called Roberta & Bob Rogers Gallery (RBR G).
Omaha wasn’t even 30 years old when Vermont natives George and Sarah Joslyn relocated so George could open a branch office for a printing company that had hired him the year before. Within 16 years, he owned the company he renamed Western Newspaper Union and subsequently built a fortune selling preprinted newspaper pages to publishers, who added their own local content.
The Joslyns became some of Omaha’s earliest art patrons, says Kelli Bello, Joslyn Castle Trust’s manager of communications and development.
“While they loved Omaha deeply, they saw a lot of needs, and one of the greatest needs was a house for creative pursuits for all people to enjoy art,” she says. “Obviously, their most important notable gift was the Joslyn Memorial [now the Joslyn Art Museum].”
Well before the museum opened in 1931, the couple fostered the art community in their home built in 1903 near 39th and Davenport streets.
Much of the diverse art the Joslyns collected later seeded the art museum Sarah created as a memorial to George, who died in 1916. Some of it was unconventional at the time for a couple of their stature, Bello says, representing no particular style or era and including everything from traditional landscape painting to depictions of commoners in everyday life to the relatively new medium of photography. Not only did the Joslyn home serve as an unofficial gallery of sorts, Sarah often worked behind the scenes for several visual and performing arts organizations.
“The Joslyns were also big proponents of Omaha’s early theater scene as far back as the 1890s.
They turned what was a cow pasture across the street from the castle into what was the first community playhouse, donating land and seed money to develop a physical structure for the pursuit of theatrical arts,” Bello says.
Sarah was active in the arts through her final years, and the home was bequeathed to the Society for Liberal Arts to serve the community after her 1940 death. Bello says. “Sarah Joslyn felt that art supported the spiritual needs of the community just as much as any church.”
Roberta and Bob Rogers—who were from Gulfport, Mississippi, and Ottumwa, Iowa, respectively—arrived in Omaha in the late 1950s when Bob was offered a job managing a local factory. “And we just ended up staying here,” their son, John, says.
Like the Joslyns, the Rogerses were successful entrepreneurs, although their business was a Mister Donut franchise they sold in 1971. As they were building their business in the 1960s, they also began amassing a collection of art through their travels and eventually started selling some of it out of their home.
“They both had a strong interest in contemporary art, from the mid-century forward,” John says. “You’d probably get some arguments from a few people, but my parents were the ones who really set the tone for contemporary art in Omaha. They said, ‘we’re going to have a full spectrum of contemporary art styles.’”
In 1972, they opened Gallery 72 on 72nd Street just south of Dodge Street. Through the years, Gallery 72 exhibited and represented established and emerging artists with a mission to build a supportive and cohesive arts community, John says. Their diverse collection included works from notables like Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali, but the Rogerses also opened their space for artist community gatherings, public events, and performances. Bob and Roberta were honored with the Governor’s Arts Award in 1990.
Gallery 72 moved to 27th and Leavenworth in the mid-'70s. John, a retired high school physics teacher (brother Bob Jr. became a photographer), began assisting his parents with “backroom” tasks in the mid-'90s and took on a larger role after his mother’s death in 2001. The year after his father’s 2012 death, John moved Gallery 72 to its current location at 18th and Vinton streets, where he is now transitioning the commercial gallery to the nonprofit RBR G and carrying on his parents’ legacy.
“Every year since 1972 there has been a show under the auspices of Gallery 72,” John says. “Part of my motivation for doing this is that I think visual artists need facilities to show their work, and to support the artists they need gallery space and representation so patrons can find their work…There is a dearth of good galleries in Omaha and there’s gobs of pop-up galleries that do interesting things and they’re good to have around. But Omaha could use another three or four commercial galleries if Omaha would financially support those galleries.”
Like the Joslyns before them, neither Bob nor Roberta were artists themselves. “Their art was their gallery,” John says, adding that none of the four [George, Sarah, Bob, and Roberta] were motivated by the desire to promote their own work, but to simply support and grow the arts in Omaha.
And their vision went beyond just a gallery or just a museum.
“If you’re a big-minded city, you have to have these things," John says. "Big cities have active visual arts and performing arts, and lots of interesting things in the community.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.