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The Leonard Thiessen Award

The Leonard Thiessen Award is a special recognition presented by the Nebraska Arts Council to an individual or organization in the community that typifies the highest degree of commitment to the arts in Nebraska.

Honorees include: Catherine and Terry Ferguson (2012); Fred and Eve Simon (2010); James and Rhonda Seacrest (2006); Norman Geske (2004); E. N. "Jack" Thompson (2002); Robert and Karen Duncan (2000); Sen. LaVon Crosby (1998); Helen Cherniak (1996); Mary Reipma Ross (1994); D. B. "Woody" Varner (1992).

The award consists of a black and white portrait of Leonard Thiessen, taken by renowned Nebraska photographer Larry Ferguson. This award, and the awards presented for the remainder of the Governor's Arts Award categories, are all works of art created by Nebraskans. In addition to Ferguson's photographic portrait, the remainder of the awards are created by an artist specially commissioned for each event. In 2012, Lincoln artist Susan Dewsnap has been selected for the commission.

About Leonard Thiessen
In a 1990 article for the Nebraska Arts Council’s 25th anniversary, Ted Price wrote about his longtime friend Leonard Thiessen, “Neither I, no anyone else who knew him for more than 15 minutes simply cannot list and summarize Leonard.” It is for this reason the Nebraska Arts Council chose to name this special award after the man whose accomplishments in the arts are too numerous to list.

Leonard Thiessen was born in Omaha in 1902. He received his training in painting at the Swedish Academy of Arts. His experiences as a teacher, art critic for the Omaha World Herald, director of the Public Work Administration’s art programs in Iowa and director of the Augusta (Georgia) Art Museum set the stage for his guidance of the Nebraska Arts Council as the first director in 1966. Unwilling to move or commute to Lincoln to develop the agency, he set up the NAC’s office in the basement of his home. He and his staff did not become full-time employees of the NAC until 1970-71, and he retired in 1974 one month after his 72nd birthday.

As both an artist and an arts agency director, Leonard believed that the arts should be of the highest quality and should be made accessible to all Nebraskans. He believed there were many levels of expression in the arts, and he supported them all.

Gloria Bartek, the NAC’s first program director, described the three dimensions of Leonard’s legacy. “Leonard was, first of all, an artist who knew the life and needs of the art,” she said. “He also was a civilized and cultivated man who had experienced the best of the European art forms. And third, he was very much an American in his concern about equal rights. This is what made him so determined that the arts should be accessible to all.”

About Larry Ferguson
Larry Ferguson is a visual artist whose images have been shown in more than 400 one-person and group exhibitions in galleries and museums across the United States and Mexico and have been published in over 50 periodicals and books. In addition to being included in thousands of private collections worldwide, Ferguson’s photographs appear in the public collections of thirty museums, such as the Joslyn Art Museum, the Society for Contemporary Photography, Kansas City, MO, the Library of Congress and the Centro Cultural Arte Contemporaneo, A.C. Manuel Alvarez Bravo Collection, Mexico. Additionally, his work has been featured in major exhibitions at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Art Institute of Chicago, New York University’s Gray Gallery and the Friends of Photography in California.

Larry Ferguson has also been the recipient of the Mid-America Arts Alliance-National Endowment for the Arts Photography Fellowship (MAAA-NEA) as well as the Nebraska Arts Council (NAC) Photography Fellowship Award. The photographer has served as Chairman of the Omaha Public Arts Commission since 2003, and is a passionate advocate for arts in the community.

Larry first met Leonard Thiessen in 1980 when he was commissioned by Omaha Magazine to shoot Thiessen’s portrait for a story on powerful people on the Omaha arts scene. In this photograph, the portrait of Theissen on the wall behind him was done by Omaha painter Paul Otero, a student of Thiessen’s. The painting is now in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. “I loved photographing him, because he has such great character in his face,” Ferguson said. “He was a very interesting man.”

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