Creating Big Omaha Events: Vic Gutman’s Festive Vision
Sep 25, 2020 04:05PM
By Robert Fraass
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Life as an event planner in the age of COVID-19 must be interesting—innovating ways to hold events for clients who cannot hold events in person. Vic Gutman, Omaha’s pioneering giant of event planning and philanthropy, is up for the challenge.
The work comes naturally to him. He created his first fundraising campaigns—for the American Cancer Society and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital—when he was still a youth. As a student organizations director at the University of Michigan, the Detroit native organized his first arts festival in 1971 at age 19.
“As soon as I saw this little community of hundreds of artists setting up in this three-block area, I thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” he said. “I wanted to do events that create a sense of community.”
He organized several other community events in Michigan and founded the guild that has perpetuated the Ann Arbor festival to this day (they named an art gallery after him in February) before coming to Omaha in 1974 post-graduation as a volunteer for VISTA, a federal anti-poverty program. He then worked with Boys Town to set up its first group homes and began working toward his law degree at Creighton University.
Gutman started the Omaha Summer Arts Festival in 1975, and Christmas at Union Station in 1976, among other events, before earning his J.D. in 1978. He began working as an assistant public defender for Douglas County at the beginning of 1980, although, he said, “I knew I would not practice law long-term.”
Gutman started the Greek Festival, helped the Rose Theater get off the ground, and worked with the Children’s Museum, the Tri-Faith Initiative, and Midtown Crossing. He founded what became the Omaha Farmers Market. He was instrumental in Omaha’s Millennium Lights celebration, which has lived on as the annual Holiday Lights Festival. He planned Omaha’s 150th birthday celebration and plans the Fourth of July Memorial Park concerts.
These events showcase interesting public spaces, the self-described idealist said.
“It’s about community,” he said. “These events bring people together.”
Gutman quit practicing law in 1986, although he’s proud to have kept up his law credentials.
“I think the training of law school helped me be successful on the business side of what I do,” he said, adding that it’s been useful to be able to understand the legal perspective in managing various elements for public events and his nonprofit work.
An Events Visionary
“His clients and events are about making the community better for everyone,” said Lisa Winton, one of Vic Gutman Associates’ employees.
His top events aide, Elizabeth Balazs-Foxall, expands upon the visionary theme.
“He’s a deep thinker and caring person with a vision of what can be,” said Balazs-Foxall, who joined VGA 27 years ago.
His vision led Gutman to a realization in 1991.
“I figured out everything I learned from doing events—from fundraising and marketing and communications and organizational skills—applied beyond events to nonprofit organizations,” he said.
Events and Fundraising in a Pandemic
Gutman faces unique challenges in 2020.
Gutman and his event planners invested significant time and money ($100,000 from the market’s reserve fund) to keep the Omaha Farmers Market open. The event was moved from Aksarben to the parking lot at Baxter Arena to protect vendors, volunteers, and shoppers by controlling access. This also has meant getting the market up to health guide standards.
“We felt an obligation to the growers and the public that really wanted to buy fresh local food,” he said. “Other such markets have done this, and we emulated their guidelines.”
Nonprofit events are held online or as a hybrid of virtual and in-person events. The popular Food Truck World Tour will feature online ordering and pickup so patrons can stay in their cars. Gutman embraces the innovation coming from the pandemic.
“I think we will see new innovations from these virtual events that will carry over after the pandemic.”
As the master of Omaha events, it’s a good bet Gutman and his aides will adapt and succeed.
Visit vgagroup.com for more information. This article includes additional reporting by Kara Schweiss.
This article was printed in the October/November 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.