When looking at the impact BFF has had on Omaha today, you would not expect the organization to have such humble beginnings ten years ago. When BFF’s founders, Alex Jochim and JD Hardy, organized the first Benson First Friday, they weren’t anticipating the event to snowball into a tight-knit union of artists who would change the DNA of Benson for years to come.
It all started with a simple question between two bartenders in 2012: “Why didn’t we know that everyone in Benson is so talented?”
Jochim and Hardy worked together at a local Benson hot spot, Jake’s Cigars & Spirits, where they would naturally get to know the people who lived in Benson and were regulars at the bar. The people that they had grown to know and love over the years would oftentimes surprise them, revealing that they had extreme skills in sculpting, painting and more. Jochim, being a talented photographer, and Hardy, being a skilled installation artist, were perplexed as to why these shared interests never organically came up in their conversations over the years. And they thought it was a shame that these talents weren’t being celebrated in the community.
The issue was not lack of artists in the neighborhood; the issue was that there was not an ideal, accessible avenue for emerging and veteran artists to showcase their talents. There were some venues hosting art events, such as The Union for Contemporary Arts, but they were just getting their feet wet at the time. And Bemis Underground, a space dedicated to local artists, had shut its doors in 2011.
In the spirit of “be what you wish to see in the world,” Jochim and Hardy decided they needed to create that space for themselves, and rally local artists and business owners to host Benson’s inaugural First Friday.
Other than a few charming bars and businesses, the Benson neighborhood was fairly desolate in 2012. Walking down the Maple Street strip, it was easy to spot many empty storefronts. Benson was mainly a live music hub for Omaha with The Waiting Room, The Sydney, and Barley Street Tavern hosting live shows. Jochim and Hardy recognized an opportunity to use those vacant shops to host visual artist gallery shows, so they hit the pavement. They went into every business in Benson to tell them about their idea for an upcoming First Friday and let them know how their businesses could be involved.
“We were consultants on how they could turn these non-traditional spaces into amazing art spaces,” said Jochim.
They did their research. Jochim and Hardy visited other cities’ First Fridays events. They hit Kansas City in April and then Lincoln in May. By the end of May 2012, they felt that they were ready to launch Benson’s very own First Friday.
June 1, 2012 was Benson’s inaugural First Friday. To say the least, it was a hit.
The First Friday encompassed experimental gallery showings, a yoga session, a fashion walk with Paper Doll Vintage (now renamed as Lion’s Mane) and more. The fashion show held no punches for the debut; they stopped traffic on Maple Street and strutted down the middle of the turning lane, turning heads.
“I’ve always appreciated counterculture and things that stir the pot,” said Jochim. “That became a running theme for the whole thing; we would accept any form of positive energy. We wanted it to be all-encompassing and interdisciplinary.”
For the first First Friday, artists including Kim Darling, Sarah Rowe, and Caitlin Little, created an installation in the front room of the South Petshop gallery, which was a shining example of embracing counterculture and public engagement. The interactive exhibit was called Everyone’s Suspect. When visitors walked in the front door, they were met with unflappable people in white lab coats clacking away on a typewriter. Visitors had to provide a DNA sample—hair, spit, blood, snot, anything—which was tacked to the wall. Visitors were handed a report of themselves and the case files were hung on the surrounding walls. We know, pre-pandemic times were wild!
“I think the reason [the Petshop exhibit] is a big highlight for me is because immediately after the show, the owner of the space offered it to us to rent,” Jochim said. “That opened doors.”
After that, Petshop—which was originally home to an exotic animal store—became the headquarters of all BFF operations.
Ten years later, BFF is a tight-knit organization of local and regional artists. The majority of BFF’s DNA is made up of the hard work of volunteers who are passionate about building community through arts engagement. BFF has continually worked to expand its programming and has grown steadily to become the volunteer-driven, artist-run, DIY-trained powerhouse nonprofit that it is today. In 2022, BFF led and obtained Omaha’s first state-recognized Creative District for the neighborhood of Benson.
“I still learn something every day,” said Jochim. “Every day.”
Most of all, Jochim is incredibly proud of the BFF team and community. He says he thoroughly enjoys seeing artists develop professionally and seeing each one of them succeed. When this started ten years ago, he was not expecting to be a mentor for so many talented artists, but he says it has been one of the biggest highlights of his career with BFF.
As for the future, Jochim has big plans. Don’t count on him slowing down anytime soon.
“My five-to-ten year goal is to travel and help start this somewhere else,” Jochim reveals. “But we have to finish what we’ve started here. There are so many things to celebrate all the f*cking time.”