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Thirty Years of Art in Omaha


Thirty Years of Art in Omaha
Gallery owner Bob Rogers’ (EB39) mission is to support contemporary artists while creating an appreciative audience for modern art.
Bob Rogers
Of the 50 or so canvases lining the walls of Gallery 72 in downtown Omaha, there are no family portraits, no vases of flowers and certainly no fruit-and-basket still lifes. Nothing so traditional would quite fit in.

Instead, bright geometric shapes, abstracted human figures and ultramodern digital prints fill this storefront gallery of contemporary art. Most people would expect the owner to be a young modernist, not 85-year-old Bob Rogers (EB39).

Rogers’ gallery, named for both its original address and year of founding, showcases artists from New York to Japan, although, as one of the most noted galleries in the Midwest, its primary focus is regional. Ranging from sculpture to two-dimensional work, the art is always cutting edge. “My late wife, Roberta, and I always tried to keep up with the times,” Rogers says. “We liked old art, but it doesn’t do anything for the future.”

Rogers grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, with an appreciation for the arts. “I was an only child and both of my parents were nuts about opera, ballet, symphony and the visual arts,” he says. Although a business major, he continued to nurture his interest in the arts at Northwestern, including participating in the Waa-Mu Show.

It would be many years before Rogers turned his artistic interests into a vocation, however. After college he served in the Army in Europe in World War II, worked in management at his father’s meatpacking firm for several years and opened a doughnut franchise in Omaha in 1964.

By the 1970s the older of Bob and Roberta’s two sons, Robert, was head of the printmaking department at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. His involvement in art inspired his parents to launch Gallery 72.

Since its 1972 opening Gallery 72 has exhibited the work of more than 100 artists, including Debra Walker of San Francisco, Sandra Perlow of Chicago and Matthew Rose of Paris. The 1975 move from the leased space on 72nd Street to the gallery’s own building on Leavenworth Street ignited the expansion of Omaha’s modern art culture, and the Rogerses won the Governor’s Art Award in 1990.

Rogers’ top purpose for the gallery is education. He chooses to exhibit pieces that often challenge accepted artistic taste. “Bob always says that art shouldn’t match your sofa,” says longtime Gallery 72 patron Suzanne Arney, who calls Rogers “Omaha’s living art treasure.”

“Bob wants to foster modern art education by showing work whether or not it will sell,” says artist John Himmelfarb, whose work is displayed in the permanent collection at Northwestern’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in addition to frequent exhibits at Gallery 72.

Rogers hosts a potluck dinner before an opening, giving viewers the opportunity to learn from the artist firsthand. In 1989 Rogers took art education to a new level with the creation of ArtOmaha, a nonprofit organization that funds public art projects, including two recent works in memory of Roberta, who died in October 2001.

Rogers is now planning a “Thirty Years of Art” show to celebrate the gallery’s anniversary. One thing he doesn’t plan to do, however, is stop. “I’m at the age when most people would have retired a long time ago,” he says. “I decided I’m not going to quit.”

— Kate Johnson (J05)

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