Sarah Wachholtz's friends made a paper sign advertising the kabobs sold by the Greengo food truck behind the Sweatshop art gallery in Benson. Business at the food truck was already brisk on this May night, but Wachholtz was up for an adventure, so they duct-taped the handwritten sign to her chest, and sent her off into the night.
It was the first Friday of the month, and Benson's growing collection of art galleries had opened their doors to the public.
The Sweatshop gallery featured a collection of prints by Omaha artist Joey Lynch, as well as a DJ and donated beer. Next door at the Sweatshop's sister gallery the Petshop, the work of Stephanie Purcell was on display.
Down the street, the Omaha Bicycle Company had organized a group bike ride from the old Marcus Motors parking lot. The Pizza Shoppe Collective displayed photography by Benson High School students. Local artists and crafters sold jewelry, illustrations and other creations inside the old Benson Theatre building. A percussion group played in the street, and after dark, an artist projected images onto the side of a Benson building. Altogether, more than 30 art exhibits, window displays, music shows and other events took place that night.
For a year now, this has happened every month during Benson First Friday.
“It's the best thing that could have happened,” said Wachholtz, better known around Benson as Waffles. Wachholtz isn't an artist, but she has been involved in assorted First Friday events over the course of the past year. She refereed boxing at the Sweatshop and dressed up like a rodeo clown and heckled friends and strangers who attempted to ride a mechanical bull.
And she always attends.
It's something new to do, something that changes a bit each month, she said. And it's something that Benson seems to have been on the brink of for a long time.
Alex Jochim and Jamie Danielle Hardy put together Benson's first First Friday last June. Both are artists, and both work at Jake's Cigars and Spirits. And both had noticed that while Omaha had many galleries that catered to established artists, it was difficult for artists who were younger or less experienced to show their work.
Jochim had lived in Lincoln for a few years, where downtown art galleries (and some businesses, too) exhibit new art, serve beer, wine and snacks and open their doors each month, often drawing huge crowds. And he could see something similar working in Benson.
He and Hardy walked door-to-door around the neighborhood, explaining what they wanted to do and asking business owners if they wanted to be involved. Many said yes, which was gratifying, though not especially surprising.
“New ideas are welcome here, that's for sure,” Hardy said.
They plastered Benson with cryptic signs featuring a photograph of Jochim's corgi, Boo, and the words “Coming June 1 BFF.”
And they began looking for space to house an art gallery and studios. Hardy and Jochim, along with their friend Ben McQuillan, found the building that is now the Petshop — formerly an actual pet shop — and got the keys on May 31 last year.
They didn't have a lot of time, so they called on another friend, Kim Reid Kuhn, to put together a quick show; Kuhn planned an interactive crime scene, in which a team of artists collected DNA samples — hair mostly — from those who attended. Reid and two other artists dramatically placed the samples in baggies, labeled them and stapled them to the walls.
“It was gross,” Reid said. “It was so bad.”
It was also a lot of fun, she said. And it got people's attention.
Elsewhere in Benson that first month, businesses displayed art in their windows. The Benson Theatre, which is undergoing renovations, hosted an open house. A few boutique owners and stylists put together a fashion show.
The first month's events drew a lot Benson regulars — people whom Hardy and Jochim had seen at Jake's, people who live in the neighborhood. Within a few months, though, the event was drawing families and lots of visitors from other neighborhoods. And many of them started buying the art they saw.
“It was so organic and grass roots,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn and Jochim, along with Sarah Rowe and Dan Cavanaugh, opened a second gallery, the Sweatshop, next door to the Petshop. Initially, the Sweatshop hosted events — mud wrestling, bottle breaking and mechanical bull riding, among others. It still does, to an extent, but as its owners and supporters renovated the building, it morphed into a hybrid of event space and gallery.
Benson First Friday soon took on a life of its own. As Jochim and Hardy made the rounds on Friday nights, they began to notice things they hadn't had a hand in organizing — street performers, sidewalk art. Once, a pińata dangled out of a second-floor apartment on Maple Street for passersby to take a swing at.
“Benson got it,” said Erin Blayney, who attended the First Friday in May, as well as many others.
This month's Benson First Friday will be the biggest yet, Jochim said. He and other organizers partnered with the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards to showcase Omaha's music and art scene. More than 80 bands and more than 40 visual artists will play shows or display their work over the course of Friday and Saturday.
Jochim and Hardy hope the monthly event continues to grow. They launched a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo and are hoping to raise $5,000 by June 29 to help fund printing, lighting, installation costs and more. They've heard from artists looking to establish their own galleries in Benson. And each month, they're seeing more new faces.
They remain a bit shocked that the neighborhood was so quick to embrace art — and that BFF grew so quickly.
But perhaps they shouldn't be, Hardy said.
“Benson has always been an eclectic Friday night kind of place.”
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