There aren't many galleries in Omaha with a history like the one at Gallery 72.
John Rogers knows that — his late parents, Bob and Roberta Rogers, started the gallery 40 years ago off 72nd Street in the Cedar Knoll Plaza.
He looked at the narrow gallery's white walls and saw art from some of Omaha's best-known artists next to work from just-out-of-art-school students next to artists who lived in different parts of the country and the world. He went along when the gallery moved to 27th and Leavenworth Streets in 1973, and went to the memorable potluck dinners in their apartment above that gallery before every new exhibition opened.
He watched his parents as they made their name in the local art business and created, in its day, one of the most popular art galleries in the city.
Now he's at the helm of Gallery 72's second coming.
“I have a foot in the past,” he said, “and my head toward the future.”
The gallery has a new home, a completely remodeled spot at 1806 Vinton St. It has a new show featuring work from noted fiber artist Mary Zicafoose, and shows by more big-name local artists scheduled for the coming months. It drew more than 400 gallerygoers to its first opening last month.
And Rogers played host to his first potluck dinner the Thursday night before the opening, entertaining a mix of artists, intellectuals and regular people who gathered for food and talk — the same way his parents did it.
Jo Anderson, owner of Anderson O'Brien Gallery, which opened in 1980, said she attended a couple of the original potlucks and is glad that John is upholding the tradition.
“It was just fun,” she said. “Everyone there was interested in the creative forces happening in Omaha.”
Rogers also is forwarding a bigger agenda, one called the Vinton Street Art District, along with some of his neighbors in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. It's a lot to take on, but he seems calm about it all. In his mind, the goal is succinct.
“I want to show good art,” he said.
Though it sounds simple, it hasn't been.
After Rogers' lease ended in the Leavenworth Street space, he said, he had two options: close entirely or find a new space.
“I decided on fight instead of flight,” he said, and started looking all over town. He kept coming back to a space on Vinton Street that he thought had potential. It was home to an antique mall.
“Even with all the junk in the room,” he said, “I felt like it had potential to be a great gallery.”
Larry Ferguson, an Omaha photographer who has worked in a studio space on Vinton Street for years, gave Rogers a tour of the neighborhood.
“The next thing I knew,” Ferguson said, “he was negotiating on the space.”
Rogers had the burgundy carpet ripped out of the building, exposing original wood floors, and had the drop ceiling removed, uncovering an original tin ceiling. He installed high-end gallery lighting. He painted the walls bright white and left that ceiling rough with paint and exposed metal, a striking contrast.
The new Gallery 72 looks like the highest of the high-end art spaces in Omaha, filled with light from the tracks above and from the windows that look out onto the street. Zicafoose's colorful tapestries and framed pieces feel right at home — the space fits what Rogers said he wants: a space for serious art.
Now he's spending five days a week in the gallery, working to bring it back to where it once was.
“I know I'm not at the top of the heap now,” he said. “I just want to be on the heap.”
Rogers isn't a trained artist, though his brother, Robert Jr., attended the Kansas City Art Institute and became a printmaker and lithographer and recently retired as an instructor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. John Rogers is a retired high school science teacher.
Anderson said she's excited that John Rogers is reinventing Gallery 72.
“The gallery has been very significant,” she said. “His father was such a presence here, and the fact that John is carrying on that tradition is a wonderful thing.”
The Vinton Street Art District is part of that plan. Gallery 72 is right at the heart of the neighborhood at 18th and Vinton, down the street from Ferguson's studio; near the offices of Emerging Terrain, a local arts nonprofit that put the banners on a grain elevator near the Interstate outside downtown Omaha; and across the street from what will become the home of Apollon, an Omaha performance art and theater group. The street also has a book bindery and a cabinet maker, bakeries and mom-and-pop cafes.
Ferguson said he thinks the arrival of Gallery 72 is a big part of the artistic appeal of Vinton Street.
“It brings class. Pure and simple,” Ferguson said. “The streets were packed on its opening night. No other business has generated that type of reaction on Vinton Street.”
Rogers hopes that continues. The next show at the gallery will feature work from Omaha artist Deborah Masuoka — her husband, Mark Masuoka, former director of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, is acting as a consultant for the gallery. Deborah Masuoka will show her large-scale ceramics and, for the first time, prints.
Rogers also has plans for a show by California artist Carol Summers, who often showed work in the old location. The Summers show will be a 61-year retrospective of the artist's career. He's working on a show with Endi Poskovic, a former Bemis Center resident artist.
He also wants to feature work from young artists and hopes to sometimes have two exhibitions at once — one small, one large. He already is working with Shea Wilkinson, a young woman who creates intricately quilted pieces full of swirls of colored thread in different designs. The young artists who work with the gallery will be represented by Rogers and the gallery.
“I hope to do enough for them that they don't have to go anywhere else to show work,” Rogers said.
During every show, he'll have a flat file in the gallery full of work that's for sale from whatever artist is showing. And the back room of the gallery is also open to buyers. People can buy much more than just what is hanging on the walls, he said.
He also has a secondary art market in the works. Many people who bought at Gallery 72 through the years are now ready to downsize and don't know what to do with their collections. Rogers said he's consigning the work and hoping to find new buyers for the pieces.
He's scheduled a poetry reading at the new gallery for March 2, which will feature readings from local poets and bloggers.
Those kinds of events, along with the potlucks he'll continue, are aimed at bringing all sorts of people into the gallery, not just people wanting to attend a gallery opening.
“I want it to be a cultural center,” he said. “This space is my artwork.”
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