Nebraska

California couple’s art gallery in McCook hits different

MCCOOK, Nebraska — When you push the round number six in the elevator of a building that is one hundred years old and is located in the middle of downtown McCook, you are taken up, up, and up to the highest level of the tallest building in this railroad town.

The elevator comes to a screeching halt. The doors slide open.

And there it is—an exposed, demolished concrete floor that is covered in a multitude of sculptures, paintings, and other works of art. Iridescent metal has been crushed into the shape of benches and seats, which give off a shimmering appearance. figures etched into scraps of wood that had been discarded. There are hundreds of works of “outsider art” that have been sketched, sculpted, or stitched. The artists who created these pieces have presented their work in New York, Washington, D.C., and London.

The area is a cacophony of contrasting colors, materials, and surface textures. It is an exploration of modern art from all around the world, including in the United States. It is a cool place to visit, but to get there from the nearest major city will take you four hours of driving.

“People walk off the elevator and are like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t expect to see this in McCook, Nebraska,” said Chad Graff, one half of the partnership behind the gallery with his partner. “I didn’t expect to see this in McCook, Nebraska.”

Why shouldn’t it?

In the southwest corner of Nebraska, in a town with a population of 7,400, you’ll find a modern art gallery known as the 6th Floor Project. The large collection of art that Graff and his wife Joann Falkenburg have amassed may be seen at the gallery that is located on the top floor of the Keystone Business Center in McCook.

In this instance, Falkenburg and Graff are addressing the notion that rural areas, such as this one, are devoid of exceptional art spaces and creative people who are skilled in their craft.

“Unexpected artists have a compelling effect on us and serve as a source of inspiration. Artists who might not have been trained in traditional methods or come from traditional backgrounds, according to Graff. “But, for some reason, when given the opportunity, really made fantastic and beautiful work,” and “they can’t fathom their life without the making and creation of art,” respectively.

Both Falkenburg and Graff are originally from Nebraska; he is from McCook, while she is from Harrison, which is a town with a population of 239 and is located 9 miles from the Wyoming state line. However, both Graff and Falkenburg have spent the most of their professional lives in Oakland, California, where Graff has practiced law and Falkenburg has worked as a family physician.

According to Falkenburg, the couple felt as though they had a foot in two different worlds as a result of their frequent travels between their home in California and their hometown of McCook, Nebraska, to see family. They would be in the Bay Area, where they would overhear individuals making derogatory comments about the Midwest and “flyover states.” After that, they’d go back to Nebraska, where they’d hear their friends and family members making negative comments about life on the coasts.

According to Falkenburg, the years leading up to the presidential election in 2016 felt like “America started falling apart at the seams.” “We can talk about this, or we can be part of the solution by bridging that cultural gap,” the author writes.

Graff argued that there is no better medium to achieve this goal than art.

In 2018, when Graff’s nephew showed the pair the empty space on the sixth floor, the concept became crystal clear: they would relocate their collection to a tiny town in Nebraska and share it with the community there.

They did the work on the gallery while commuting back and forth between California and Nebraska for an entire year. The epidemic began at that point. The pair from the Bay Area, which is home to approximately 7.8 million people, made the decision in July 2021 to move to McCook, which has a population of 7,446 and is located an hour away from the closest interstate in order to make the gallery a reality.

After being abroad for 36 years, Graff finally made his way back to his hometown.

As he was growing up, he observed his father’s involvement in the community through his role as owner of McCook National Bank. Still the dominant shareholders in what is now known as MNB Bank are Graff and his ten siblings. His mother was very active in the community, volunteering frequently with Meals on Wheels and the church she attended. She also served on the school board.

However, both he and Falkenburg have been residents of California for the past 24 years, making their time there longer than the time they spent in Nebraska as children. Even though his family has roots in McCook, they are aware that they are considered outsiders by the community, according to Graff.

“This is not the kind of story in which the ‘boy returns back home.’ In addition to that, we are seeking to build these bridges through the medium of art. “We understand that in order for that bridge to be successful, a significant portion of it must consist of ourselves,” added Graff. “Because we wanted to play a part in the inauguration of these venues, we decided to come here and give it our all,”

The collection, in and of itself, is analogous to taking a stroll through the couple’s lives prior to their relocation to McCook.

There are the woven baskets and vibrant paintings of Navajo daily life, both of which are remnants of the five years that Graff spent on a reservation in Arizona as an English teacher and of the time that Falkenburg spent doing medical rotations with the Indian Health Service on that same reservation. It was there that they witnessed Shonto Begay, a Native American artist, set up shop in the school library and begin painting for and with students. Begay’s paintings have been given a prominent place in their collection in recent years. And it was there that they first developed a respect for local artists and began to support them.

There is the artwork that they bought in Oakland after developing relationships with the local artists at Creative Growth Studio, which Graff described as a location that “grabs ahold of you and never lets you go.”

Studio for artists who have intellectual or developmental challenges is what you’ll find at Creative Growth. Its painters have had their work featured at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Falkenburg and Graff have become acquainted with a significant number of the artists whose work they have acquired; one such artist is Monica Valentine, who covers foam shapes with hundreds of sequins and beads of a variety of colors.

Valentine is unable to see, but she is able to “feel” the temperature of different colors through the palms of her hands. According to Falkenburg, whenever she meets new people, the first thing she does is ask them what their favorite color is, and then she proceeds to talk about how she interprets that hue.

According to Falkenburg, “the work kind of comes to life” when the viewer has a personal connection to the artist. It’s just like hanging out with the family.

There is artwork from Japan, Paris, and all of the other far locations that they have visited.

And art from Nebraska.

They are the proud owners of the hardwood benches that were crafted by Rastus Snow in the Litchfield sawmill that he purchased after returning from his service in Iraq. They have some film images of the Great Plains that were taken by Jack Stevens, who is now 90 years old and lives in McCook. And the oil paintings that Lucas Kotschwar creates in his spare time while he’s not farming near McCook.

The gallery is frequently visited by Kotschwar. He stated that it has the feeling of being a getaway. A place where he could go to get his mind off the monotony of farming and the stress he felt about maize prices.

“There’s going to be a lot of people that go up to the 6th Floor and totally not get it, and not be interested or impressed,” said Matt Sehnert, the longtime owner of the well-known local restaurant Sehnert’s Bakery, which he sold last year. “There’s going to be a lot of people that go up to the 6th Floor and completely not get it,” he continued. “But I’ve seen so many people who haven’t had a place to call their own in rural Nebraska…the 6th Floor has been the place that they either were looking for, or that they found that they didn’t even know they were looking for,” you say. “But I’ve seen so many people who haven’t had a place to call their own in rural Nebraska.”

Outside of the gallery, Falkenburg and Graff own anything from “a couple hundred” to “around a thousand” works. The pair was unable to come to an agreement on a number or whether to count wearable art such as handmade jewelry and clothes in their collection.

After three years, they have expanded their original concept for a gallery to encompass five separate locations in McCook. The gallery is located on the sixth floor. A communal kitchen located on the ground level of the same building as the other amenities. A structure located close to the train station that plays host to summer art courses taught by local instructors.

Falkenburg and Graff recently purchased a building in the downtown area that had housed Wells Fargo with the intention of transforming it into an additional gallery and event space. The “Art Bank” is the working name for the venue at this time. They also own the Morrison building, which was formerly occupied by the office of the former governor Frank Morrison. The pair currently makes their home in the structure, where they have also established workspaces for artists from within and outside of the state.

Already, they have had artists from other states in town for residencies, and they have established a collaboration with Maple St. Construct, which is an art gallery located in Omaha. They have high hopes of continuing to bridge the gap between artists from the coast and those from the Great Plains.

Graff stated that “we are aware that artists in metropolitan areas are being priced out of things and are having to find cheap studio space.” “Here’s affordable room. This area has an intriguing landscape. And this is a place where there is peace and solitude, where you may be by yourself and create art.

Together with Sehnert, Falkenburg is a member of a team that is seeking to get a portion of downtown McCook designated as a Creative District by the Nebraska Arts Council. Such a step would make it possible to apply for grants and launch additional initiatives aimed at enhancing the community.

The art collection that Falkenburg and Graff have does not function as an investment for them. Graff stated that they erected it out of their appreciation for art and the work that artists do. Their work in McCook is quite similar to what they do in other places; it is an effort to encourage individuals to express their creativity.

Falkenburg stated that the expected return on investment could take decades. “We may never know if there is a child that gets to come up to the 6th Floor to do an art program and that just just a strong experience that alters them into their 30s or 40s,” said the director of the art program. However, if it has such an effect on young people, it is well worth the effort to activate a location such as this.

According to Charlie McPherson, executive director of the McCook Economic Development Corporation, the 6th Floor is not simply a space for those who already live in McCook, but it is also a way of drawing people into the city.

McCook, like the majority of other small towns in Nebraska, is struggling with a declining population. In the past 20 years, the town has lost 7% of its total population. In addition, McPherson stated that communities need to focus on facilities such as arts and creative spaces in order to attract new people, even while the primary emphasis is placed on housing and employment opportunities.

According to Ronda Graff, the coordinator of the McCook Community Foundation Fund and the couple’s sister-in-law, prospective employees who apply for jobs at organizations like the YMCA and local hospital have made a habit of stopping by the 6th Floor. Candidates for employment are given the opportunity to observe the artwork, as well as one of the most breathtaking vistas in the city.

She stated that you “nearly utilize it as a marketing tool,” which is a direct translation of what she meant. “To demonstrate not only what we possess but also what is feasible.”

According to Chad Graff, rural America is on the brink of a tipping point. There are going to be some communities that are not going to make it, while others will.

Graff is quoted as saying that “we are standing on the shoulders of the folks who constructed this 100 years ago.” “And there is no middle ground; either the bricks start to cave in and fall apart, or we take the next step in propping it up,” she said. “It’s either going to be this way or that way.” I believe that the way to do it is through art.

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