Brigitte McQueen Shew
News, Summer 2015
Repurposing entrepreneurial skills to found a thriving nonprofit.
BY SARAH WENGERT | PHOTOS BY DEBRA S. KAPLA
On a showery summer afternoon at The Union for Contemporary Art, the rain perfectly symbolizes the literal and figurative nourishment this nonprofit gives its community. Out back the community garden is green, glistening and bursting with blossoms, just as The Union’s patrons drink in its inspirational arts offerings and feast at the table of its community-building efforts.
As founder and executive director of The Union, Brigitte McQueen Shew is the cultivator in chief— the bright sun bidding everything to grow—and the organization benefits from her past experience in communications, art and entrepreneurship.
“People don’t think about nonprofits as starting a small business, but in my experience, founding a nonprofit is very similar to the process of starting a business from scratch as an entrepreneur,” says McQueen Shew, who founded The Union in 2011.
“The Union was born from the idea of wanting to
support local artists and also help revitalize North Omaha,” she says. “I had coffee with a couple artists who are now board members—Watie White and Mary Zicafoose—and they loved the idea and wanted to help figure out how to make it happen.”
McQueen Shew calls The Union “an arts organization, with a really strong community development bent.”
“We’re committed to supporting the creative culture of Omaha by providing direct support to local artists, but in every endeavor we’re also committed to revitalizing the North Omaha community, so our focus is purely social practice,” she says. “The artists we work with are encouraged to give back, and the work we do focuses on getting people to engage and reconnect with North Omaha.”
Originally from Detroit, Mc- Queen Shew’s compass landed on Omaha after a 13-year stint in New York City studying journalism and working for Teen People magazine. She wishes she could say it was love at first sight with her adopted city, but in fact, she struggled with Omaha’s racial segregation.
“It was very difficult to move
here from New York and be like, ‘OK, where are all the brown people?’ and to have people tell me that’s just the way the city is laid out—but not in a way that they thought it was a problem. I really struggled with that,” she says.
After two years, she relocated to Seattle, which she loved, but was pulled to return to Omaha again three years later.
“I realized that I actually really missed the community here, and that the reasons I left were things that, if you care about a place, you fight to change, you don’t just walk away from,” she says.
As Teen People teetered on folding, Mc- Queen Shew was already craving a professional change. She was inspired by an ever-growing connection to the arts and knew it would be in that realm. When her publisher called offering reassignment to a different publication or a severance package, she took the severance. With that and her life savings, she opened Pulp in late 2007—a stationery store with a contemporary art space, which hosted exhibitions of work on paper and wood from international, regional and local artists.
“I think I’m a more effective executive director because I had Pulp, because it taught me some basic business skills and how to market yourself as an entrepreneur,” she says. “You may not be literally selling with the nonprofit, but you’re selling yourself and what you’re doing.”
“It was great, everyone loved Pulp,” she says. “It did really well, but not well enough to take care of itself and me. I basically opened a small business at the absolute worst time: the dawn of the recession.”
By 2009, McQueen Shew made the difficult decision to close her business.
“I lost my house, my car—2009 was not a good year for me,” she says. “I think that Pulp closing and the bad things that happened with my owning a small business really changed my mindset about life. I’m much less fearful of failure. I realized that when you literally hit bottom, sometimes you bounce back higher than you ever thought you could. And I know I never would have started The Union if I had not gone through that experience. Everything that I have now came from losing everything. So many people are scared of failure and that keeps so many brilliant things from coming to be. You have to be willing to take a risk, I think especially in small businesses, because no one’s going to invest in you unless you’re totally invested.”
After Pulp folded, a brief stint as director of the Bemis Underground serendipitously acquainted McQueen Shew with nonprofit work and fueled the idea that would become The Union.
“I had no clue how to start a nonprofit; I just had an idea,” she says. “I really wanted to support local artists, but at the same time had started to delve into the history of North Omaha and the racial-political issues in Omaha—just trying to get a better understanding of why we are the way we are as a community. I’d become really passionate about doing something to address those issues and make a difference.”
While obstacles do exist, McQueen Shew says The Union has gotten a great reception and will even upgrade to a new, larger building at 24th and Lake in 2016. The move will add about 14,000 additional square feet.
“It’s the most awesome opportunity, and what it’s going to mean for The Union and our programs is just astronomical,” she says. “This is our 10-year vision and it’s happening in our fifth year. Everything we’re currently doing comes with us, it just gets bigger and better and we’ll add a bit more.”
McQueen Shew, who is expecting her first child in September, is very grateful she’s been able to realize her dream, have the community support it, and watch it grow.
And despite her brilliant, valuable concept and skilled direction of The Union, McQueen Shew says there’s nothing “magical” about her.
“I tell people all the time, ‘If I can do this, you can totally do this,’” she says of being a founder. “I’m constantly talking to people who’ll say, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great if [Omaha] had X, Y, Z,’ but who will just wait for somebody else to do it. I tell them, ‘No—you can do that!’ We can’t wait for somebody else to make Omaha what we want it to be. I didn’t have crazy connections, I just had a conversation that led to another conversation that led to someone being willing to take a leap with me, and I genuinely believe that can happen for anyone who really wants to make it happen. Omaha is ripe with possibilities — you have to be ready to hustle — but if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and just do it, it gets done here.”
Learn more about The Union for Contemporary Art at www.u-ca.org.