Ode to the Library

By Alex Priest

November 9, 2015

“…the Library [is] an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store where all potent forms of media – new and old – are presented equally and legibly. In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and, more importantly, the curatorship of their contents that will make the Library vital”
- Rem Koolhaas on the Seattle Public Library

Laura Carlson:  Social Studies , Curated by Alex Priest Omaha Public Library - Michael Phipps Gallery

Laura Carlson: Social Studies, Curated by Alex Priest
Omaha Public Library - Michael Phipps Gallery

Public libraries are access points to information across discipline, hierarchy, and context. In doing so, libraries lead a campaign for egalitarian information exchange and for being a public refuge for maximal users/uses. Simultaneously, these social hubs are critiques to the supposed public-ness of free space optimized for “everyone."

Personally, I have been issued library cards at four libraries. These institutions have altered the trajectory of my life, career, and intellectual upbringing. I owe most of my aesthetic points-of-view to these libraries and now proudly volunteer as curator of Omaha Public Library’s Michael Phipps Gallery. 

The following four-part narrative recounts my personal and evolving relationship to libraries.  

Part I
In fourth grade, I lived in Jackson, Minnesota. The library’s all white architecture is an assertive plop into the beige-ness of “small town charm." With contemporary planes and cool typography I was struck by the spaces in and around the library. Most importantly, however, were the Bertoia chairs scattered throughout. Like pornographic lust, the chairs were a black hole into an unquenchable thirst for taste. I researched modern furniture obsessively. Learning the forms and the designers (#Eames), I exhausted the library’s shelved collection. 

Addictively, I could not stop. I began asking the librarians for the supply catalogs to see what other furniture was available. The Design Within Reach catalog became my Bible. Jackson Public Library was my sanctuary to experience Design, the possibilities of good taste, and the power of active decision-making. It was not the traditional library materials, but the objects facilitating the knowledge that held my attention. Pandora’s Box was opened. 

Part II
Moving from beige to off-white (it took my Mom six months to select the “right” color taupe), I was exported to Emmetsburg, Iowa, at 13. There is a certain level of boredom experienced by teenagers in small towns. As a way to fill time, I began going to the public library, which was connected to Iowa Lakes Community College’s library. Through accessing a larger collegiate database, I experienced a broader reach in visual culture/consumption.

The access was, like in Jackson, not strictly found in books but primarily found in subscriptions to seemingly niche periodicals. I was a sixth grader viewing W magazine, House BeautifulEpicurious, and GQ.  While these publications may seem standard for any major library in a city, in a small sleepy town of 2,500 people, examining W magazine created a schism. At that point, it was impossible to comprehend what I was consuming because the glossy images did not correlate with my reality. I began asking questions: What does cashmere feel like? What do juniper berries taste like? Who is Marc Jacobs? How do you pronounce Chanel? What is a Cornish hen? What is a Le Corbusier? 

Each issue created a vortex in my life and each month I would rush up to the library and riffle through the magazines. Through carnivorous aesthetic consumption, I built a reservoir that informed my decision to go to Iowa State University’s College of Design and began a pursuit of asking questions and critiquing reality. 

Part III
The encyclopedic access to knowledge and culture/diversity at Iowa State University is commanding. Similarly, the university library’s design books, which are housed in the basement of Parks Library, contain stack after stack of genres selectively ranging from architecture, landscape architecture, graphic design, furniture design, fashion, art, and typography. All encompassing and all consuming, I spent a considerable amount of time down in the basement of Parks Library. 

As reference points shifted, my visual mind bank grew immensely. The volumes of taste and culture generators triggered a rigor in my practice as a designer. As I continued questioning, however, the questions shifted from baseline queries to deeper intellectual subjects. I became more and more uncomfortable with accepted blandness. This was compounded by the girth of analytical knowledge I was gleaning at the College of Design. I was adapting with new tools to redefine the/my world, and the library provided a repository of muses. 

While at the College of Design (which also had an incredible library), I took a modern art history class and the following semester studied abroad at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. While in Amsterdam, I visited the Hermitage Museum. The current exhibition was Matisse to Malevich, which coincidentally aligned with the previous art history class. I left the exhibition tearing up. For the first time I felt art, I got it. Before this moment, I was a “normal” person who, when asked if they “like art,” generally responds with a culturally appropriate “yes."

I visited the exhibition at least 15 times. Each time it was clear that my emotional response stemmed from more than just the art. The response/curiosity drew from the ways the exhibition was installed, curated, and the written about in didactics. Importantly, the printed catalogue was the take home version of the exhibition. My career trajectory was altered because of this one exhibition and catalogue. I went back to Iowa State, shifted my focus from Landscape Architecture to include art and architectural history, museum studies, and spatial theory. As scenarios changed, my purview and design sensibility expanded in tandem.  

Part IV
In 2011 I accepted a position at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts to work in the exhibitions department and moved to Omaha, Nebraska. I spent my initial year in Omaha assembling contextual awareness. The following year, I was invited to curate an exhibition from the permanent collection at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska, and spent nearly a year researching. Once complete, I had a void and hunger for more. 

One evening I stopped at the Omaha Public Library and noticed the Michael Phipps Gallery. Asking the front desk for the gallery manager, I was handed Linda Trout, the Community Outreach and Partnership Manager’s email and phone number. I called her, and the next day we met. 

The gallery, located on the first floor of the W. Dale Clark branch, is a space for area artists/institutions/curators to present exhibitions. Unfortunately, the next gap in the schedule was not for four months. I was eager to work directly with artists to organize exhibitions, so I suggested that I help the artists scheduled for 2014 to bring consistency to the gallery and dictated the aforementioned anecdotes on my love affair with libraries. 

Until then artists were expected to curate, select, and hang their artwork, create didactics, and light the work without regular guidance. As a pilot, I began my first studio visits in November 2013 and hung the first exhibition with two artists in December. In 2014 I was inaugurated as the volunteer curator at the Michael Phipps Gallery, given a nametag, and worked with the existing schedule while peppering in exhibitions with artists I curated along the way.  

Concluding the 2014 exhibition season, I organized 2014 Survey: Omaha Artists, which was inspired by the Whitney Biennial. The exhibition included 48 Omaha-metro artists and 63 art objects, which was exhaustive yet purposefully incomplete. The opening reception capped at 200 artists, enthusiasts, and library patrons. The artwork facilitated contextual dialogues and the various arts communities of Omaha overlapped, if only for two hours. 

In 2014 the Michael Phipps Gallery hosted 12 exhibitions. With an insane month-by-month exhibition schedule, Linda and I discussed how the gallery should play a vital role in the arts communities of Omaha and to the library itself. We resolved dated policies and came to the conclusion to: host a juried open call for submissions for the 2015 schedule, change the exhibition schedule from twelve one-month exhibitions to six two-month exhibitions, give the artists an honorarium, require the artist reside in the Omaha-metro area, host an opening for each exhibitions, and allow artists larger access to the library’s holdings, services and staff. 

The 2015 open call brought eleven applications. The jury selected five artists to fill the schedule, and I would present one end-of-year group exhibition. Fast-forward 12 months, Linda and I held another juried open call for the 2016 schedule and had 30 applications from some of Omaha’s top artists. We selected 10 artists, pre-curating several exhibitions, all with the same benefits as 2015. 

As a social experience and public experiment, my relationship to the Michael Phipps Gallery coalesces 17 years of research and development. The gallery is a way to deliver reference points into Omaha’s arts communities, build a catalog of artists working in the city, articulate alternative forms of information delivery in the context of the Omaha Public Library, and provide a non-arts space to view art. 

The W. Dale Clark Library is many things to many people: a place to check out a Rachel Ray cookbook, a genealogy lab, a warm/cool/dry place, a space with internet access, a health clinic, education center, civic database – yet exhibition venue is not an automatic assumption. This provides a small blip when exposed to the art presented in the gallery. There is a split second where an unmediated experience can happen, and the library patron has a possibility to experience art without presupposing to see, feel or do something arts related. 

With recent news reports questioning the role and patrons of this public institution, it is stimulating to reflect on the impact of libraries. Libraries have a compelling position play that overcomes extremes in hierarchies with keen awareness to the severity of being public. Libraries are vast networks of possibility and stimulation, and to my narrative, that continues to be powerful.