Don and I had both been through Omaha before…but we never stopped. For several years we have been tracking Western Art Museums that were listed in a brochure we picked up back in 2011 at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. The Booth Museum was such a surprise…a Western art collection in the southeast…and it was so impressive that we decided to visit the other institutions listed in the brochure.
So, based on an eight-year-old brochure, here we were on our way to The Joslyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, but first came our hunt for a Starbuck’s. Along the way, I was diverted by a glimpse of The Old Market area (framed by 10th and 14th Streets, Farnam and Leavenworth Streets). The Old Market is a fun peek into Omaha’s role as a starting point during our country’s westward migration in the mid-19th century and the city’s emergence as a center for commerce and industry. The Old Market’s cobblestone streets helped slow our travel so we could catch glimpses of the boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants in the rehabbed factory buildings. Other structures sport broad shed-covered sidewalks and some of their roofs were even edged with flower-filled planters. Hotels in the area make this a great central starting point for touring, but the lure is not just for visitors…new lofts in the encircling area speak of its growing appeal for locals as well visitors.
We found our Starbuck’s just short blocks away and at the next corner discovered a one of the ranging buffalo that are part of the massive sculpture with more than 100 figures that spread out over a four-block area. Our first buffalo was unique…she was literally taking a shortcut through the cornerstones of a high-rise building with her calf standing on the sidewalk nearby watching in amazement. Once we rounded the corner we saw more of the stampeding herd that had startled a flock of Canadian geese who were taking flight from their pond setting. We were intrigued by these fabulous figures but decided to make our way to the Joslyn Museum and come back later to discover the rest of this dramatic cast.
The Joslyn Museum is impressive with its original 1931 Art Deco style building, the added Scott Pavilion (1994) and its sculpture garden. We wandered from one well-organized gallery to the next enjoying the 19th- and 20th-century European and American art from the permanent collection as well as art and artifacts from Greek pottery to the Renaissance and Baroque era on into the 20th century. New contemporary acquisitions are continually being added to the collection.
One of my favorite paintings was of “Mrs. Abbott Lawrence Rotch” by John Singer Sargent. What made the work so special was that the dress, designed by Callot Seurs, was on a mannequin in front of the painting…what a rare chance to see the fabric, flowers and lace that Sargent captured in his brush strokes. (Note: the painting and dress are currently on loan to the Joslyn.)
We were especially taken with the Joslyn’s galleries that focused on artists and explorers of the American West. Karl Bodmer’s detailed watercolors and prints capture impressions of the Native Americans he met during the Maximilian-Bodmer Expedition of the Upper Missouri River in 1832-34. Bodmer’s journals are on display with their pages covered in small handwritten script recording his observations. I was envious of his artistic ability to sketch details and features from the landscape in the margins. The galleries also highlight works by contemporary Native American artists.
Inside the Scott Pavilion, directly above the entrance to the museum, is an enormous Chihuly glass installation (Chihuly: Inside & Out) and it is balanced in size and scale by another of his pieces (Chihuly: Glowing Gemstone Polyvitro Chandelier) on the far opposite glass wall. Don’t forget to notice the Art Deco lighting fixtures in the original museum lobby, the beautiful brass gates and other decorative details throughout the building, including the interior courtyard and its splashing fountain. All of these treasures are available for free to the public and there is also complimentary off-street parking.
We backtracked to my shockingly destructive buffalo and set off to find the rest of the sculptures that make up the Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness Park (14th and Capitol Streets to 16th and Dodge Streets). We parked and walked the length of the wagon train. This instillation is vast in scope. The men, women and children express their hope for the future, while the wagons and the historic details take us back to remind us of the difficulties and challenges the pioneers encountered. We had just spent three days driving on interstate highways to get here but we could not help but think of the fortitude and determination it took for these pioneers to follow rutted trails this far across the country then quite literally dig in to build sod homes and start plowing and farming the land.
Some of the bronze figures are standing along a dry creek bed talking with members of the Omaha Tribe while other men drive the horses and oxen pulling the heavily loaded Conestoga wagons. Pioneer women, boys and girls walk alongside while on the rock bluff above the scout/leader sits astride his steed and encourages them, while keeping a watchful eye for trouble on the horizon. The contrast between these early settlers and Omaha’s soaring corporate centers is a real testimonial to the vision and strength of the people of the region.
Union Station, which now houses The Durham Museum (801 S. 10th Street) is another 1931 Art Deco building that is extraordinary in its scale and beauty. The interior is inspiring with its 65-foot vaulted ceiling and the authentic and elaborately detailed interior. There are massive and magnificent chandeliers as well as the original functioning neon signs for “Smokers Needs, Cigars, Novelties” in the lobby concession area. The addition of lifelike figures from an earlier era of travel bring the lobby to life and are a wonderful counterpoint to the bronze pioneers and their wagon train we had just visited in the Wilderness Park.
The lower level of the station houses a museum of railroad history as well as a comprehensive look into Omaha’s business and social history as well. Several train cars are on display and accessible for visitors so they can feel what it was like to travel during the heyday of the railroad. When you leave the building, be sure to look back above the entrances to see the workmen’s figures and their tools chiseled into the granite.
We are now off to see the capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, but we so much enjoyed our visit to Omaha that we plan to return and explore more of the its history and to enjoy the vibrant city it is today.
FOR MORE ADVENTURE: This is Part 2 of 12 in our drive from Maine to and from Glacier National Park. If you would like to follow along with us, the first installment was Des Moines, Iowa, and the next stop is Lincoln, Nebraska.