BFF Omaha Celebrates 12 Years: How a DIY Art Walk Helped Transform Benson into a Creative Hub

From DIY art walk to helping create the Creative District Program in Nebraska—BFF Omaha celebrates 12 years of building community through arts engagement in the Benson neighborhood.

BFF Omaha Co-founder and Executive Director Alex Jochim (middle) looks at a mural with First Friday attendees. Photo provided by BFF Omaha.

For more than a decade, the Benson neighborhood in north central Omaha has been home to a community dedicated to creating a better neighborhood through arts engagement.

BFF, “Benson First Friday,” a DIY and grassroots art walk-turned-nonprofit is celebrating its birthday and all the success they have accumulated over the past 12 years. Those accomplishments include getting Benson designated as one of Nebraska’s first Creative Districts.

BFF Omaha was started in 2012 by two bartenders and artists, Alex Jochim and JD Hardy. They saw the need to support local artists in Benson and proposed hosting a First Friday in June 2012.

First Fridays are events held on the first Friday of each month, including art walks and gallery openings that promote art and neighborhoods. 

“We kind of saw it as a one-off deal. The first one we thought, let’s do this big thing. We’ll talk to all the businesses, tell them what it’s about, and it’ll just happen on its own,” said Jochim, who has served as BFF Omaha executive director since 2015. 

During the event, business owners told Jochim how great this First Friday was and kept asking—what’s happening next?

Twelve years later, “what’s next” is still happening. 

Since that first June, BFF has gone through significant phases and changes. 

Evolving from the early days

After three years of organizing and funding monthly First Friday art walks out of pocket, BFF was at the point of burnout, Jochim said. The group had a choice to make—quit or evolve. 

BFF chose to evolve, gaining nonprofit status in July 2015, and they finally got funding—paying for more events, artists, supplies and rent. But they didn’t stop there. BFF wanted to expand further and provide more to the community.

“Our focus is mostly creative placemaking; we want to represent the community that exists here,” Benson Creative District Director Annie Butler explained. 

Butler says that Benson is a community with diverse people and businesses. She wants to ensure that all of the projects and programs represent that community. One concern that Butler expressed is balance: how to grow and give artists a space, but not so much so that they bring a level of development that pushes all the artists and community out. 

This thinking motivated the movement to apply to designate the Benson neighborhood as a Creative District. 

Benson First Friday features an outdoor seasonal artist market. Photo courtesy of BFF Omaha.

Advocating for Creative Districts in Nebraska

Sen. Megan Hunt proposed the Creative District program to the legislature in 2020 with a bill that gave the Nebraska Arts Council the ability to designate Nebraska Creative Districts. BFF played a role in establishing the bill, having staff members like Caitlin Little speak at hearings during sessions and using Benson as a poster child for the program, Jochim said. 

There are currently 30 Creative Districts in Nebraska. 

According to the Nebraska Arts Council, “Creative Districts are designated cultural and economic areas where innovation flourishes and neighborhoods come together in the name of art. They provide significant economic impact by creating purposeful spaces like art galleries, theaters, and music venues, attracting employees and businesses.”

“And that’s exactly what we did in 2012,” Butler said. 

BFF started the official Creative District application process in 2021.

The application process included:

  • Submitting a letter of interest to the Nebraska Arts Council.
  • An eligibility assessment, which is a 45-page workbook. 
  • Preparation and submission of a Creative District plan: after a site visit and planning session with Nebraska Arts Council staff, the District submits a strategic plan that outlines the goals of the Creative District.
  • Certification as a Creative District for five years. 
  • Submit a yearly evaluation and interim plan. 
  • And apply for recertification after five years with a new five-year plan. 

The process is intense, with many in-depth questions about the neighborhood. BFF took a whole year to fill out their eligibility assessment

Jochim said they formed a volunteer group of community members who wanted to help establish the Creative District. Throughout that year, committees worked on different sections of the workbook. BFF also had an ongoing online survey that people could contribute to, and two in-person community forums. 

“We designed the forum and surveys with the questions of the workbook… it guides your direction, and we wanted to be as authentic as we could,” Jochim said. 

Questions included: What are creative assets to the community? What do you want to do with the community? How are you ensuring your Creative District activities reflect the diversity of your community?

It was a comprehensive application sourced straight from the people in Benson. “It couldn’t have happened without the community,” Jochim said. 

Jochim explained that Benson was already a creative district, only super underfunded and with limited capacity. He saw this official naming as an opportunity to show the importance of what the creative industry can do for the state of Nebraska. 

Benson was officially named a Creative District in 2023. 

Benson Creative District ribbon cutting. Photo provided by BFF Omaha.

Butler said the Benson Creative District is currently supporting existing programming, including BFF. It is also starting to work directly with Benson High School and focusing on relationships with students there. 

Fostering access and community in Benson

A collaboration between the Benson Creative District and Benson High School produced a “Visit Benson” publication designed by the students, which also doubles as their lit magazine with student artwork and poetry. 

Butler said they also hosted seven panels for Benson students full of people from similar creative careers: tattoo artists, creative writers, design branding, photographers, and videographers, among others who participated. They wanted to show the students real creative careers.

“Here are three people who look like you and came from similar places as you… who also didn’t know what they were doing in high school,” Butler said. 

The Benson Creative District isn’t creating its own programming and is instead running the existing programs. The community is leading these initiatives, and we help make it happen, Butler said.

“These are the people that we are representing, it’s the artists, it’s the businesses that exist here. It’s the community that exists here.”

Their next goal is to focus on accessibility in Benson. 

The Creative District achieved their first step of getting ASL interpreters funded for the year. Their next step is improving accessibility in BFF’s parking lots and buildings, specifically the Pet Shop Gallery. They constantly ask the question: Who’s missing from the table? And how do we address those this year?

Jochim’s goal is to continue paying staff a realistic salary to keep up with BFF’s growth as the programming expands. 

Butler’s goal is for the Benson Creative District to collaborate with different organizations in Benson and not compete for the same funding, but instead improve the community together.

“We want to make sure that we’re building relationships—true, authentic relationships—with neighbors and the community members.”

Attend Benson First Friday

BFF is celebrating its 12th birthday on Friday, June 7, in the Benson Creative District on Maple Street. This is also the group’s yearly pride celebration and the biggest First Friday of the year. 

First Friday Pride will feature 100+ on-street vendors, live artists, street DJs, projections, performances and exhibiting artists throughout the neighborhood.

You can find more information about future events here.

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