Behind the Scenes: Joan Squires Marks 20 Years at Omaha Performing Arts

As Omaha Performing Arts President Joan Squires celebrates her 20-year anniversary with the organization, she looks at its evolution since 2002 and the vision for its future. 

Omaha Performing Arts President Joan Squires was recently dining in a local restaurant when a man came over and introduced himself as a recruiter for a firm in Omaha, thanking her for what Omaha Performing Arts brings to the community. 

“He said it makes a difference as he is able to recruit people for jobs and positions, because they ask, ‘What is there to do?’” she said. “As we look at cities around the country that we want to emulate, their entertainment and arts is a core part of who they are. And it does help us attract a workforce and retain people … Arts and culture contribute greatly to our quality of life. People want to know what makes it worthwhile to come to a place and stay and work and raise a family. We are a key for workforce development and help attract and retain workers and businesses.”

Squires is reminded every day of why the arts are important. Her 20 years with Omaha Performing Arts have gone by fast, she said, and she’s seen a lot of positive change since joining the organization in 2002.  

“When I arrived and there was only the Orpheum where local organizations performed, there wasn’t any room on the calendar to present touring artists or top Broadway shows,” she said. “Now we present a wide variety of the very best performances including Broadway, jazz, dance, touring bands, comedians, family shows and more. We have all of these options now, similar to other major metropolitan markets — and we present the shows in world-class venues.”

Jack Koraleski, who serves as board chair for Omaha Performing Arts, credits much of this to Squires’ leadership. 

“Joan Squires is a dynamic leader whose passion for the arts is apparent in everything she does and how she gets it done,” Koraleski said. “She has been the driving force behind the growth, development and success of Omaha Performing Arts since its inception.”

Squires said several factors contribute to the success of Omaha Performing Arts, or “O-pa” for short including a focus on quality performances, venues, and education and engagement programs. She works closely with the board of directors, funders, staff and volunteers, and others to oversee programming and all education and engagement activities as well as fundraising, ticket sales, marketing, finances and facilities, and has ensured that O-pa maintains its commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout the organization. Since Squires came to Omaha Performing Arts, it has become the largest arts organization in the state, overseeing the Holland Performing Arts Center, Orpheum Theater, Ticket Omaha and Steelhouse Omaha (opening in May 2023).

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“The performing arts bring people together, which we need now more than ever. The arts can bring joy, make us think, help us be creative,” she said. 

She noted that the performing arts provide entertainment, education and engagement opportunities. 

“Joan is a tireless advocate for arts education and is totally focused on bringing the arts to life,” Koraleski said. “That’s what makes Omaha Performing Arts so important to Omaha. OPA provides the highest quality performances and educational experiences and ensures they are available to every member of our community.”

Squires grew up in the small town of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. Squires attended Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, earning a bachelor’s degree in music education. She taught elementary and high school music in her home state for three years before pursuing master’s degrees in music and business administration from the University of Michigan. Her arts management experience spans more than 30 years and includes leadership positions with the Phoenix Symphony and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Squires said she’s gratified by the performances and education experiences O-pa has presented that didn’t exist before the organization was established. The organization serves not only Omaha, but also a much bigger footprint across the state. 

“We’ve provided opportunities for spectacular artists to perform, and memorable experiences for everyone,” she explained. “I know we’ve changed the city and region.”

Squires said she’s also proud of the organization’s commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. 

Joan Squires, president of Omaha Performing Arts. (photography by Debra S. Kaplan)
Joan Squires, president of Omaha Performing Arts. (photography by Debra S. Kaplan)

“Our artists and programs reflect that,” she said. “We offer programs both within our venues and throughout the community that provide access for all. These have been developed through our relationships and our engagement programs. One of the key programs is Voices Amplified, our series on arts and social justice that has focused on diverse voices and connects local artists and touring shows.”

O-pa’s statewide presence goes beyond fostering the arts, Squires said. 

“I think people sometimes dismiss us as ‘just’ an arts organization without understanding the tremendous economic impact we have,” she said. “When Steelhouse Omaha opens, our annual economic impact will be $61 million annually. 

“We currently reach over 550,000 people each year and are a key contributor to the community’s quality of life. I also think people sometimes feel you must dress up and that tickets are expensive, which is not the case. We present free concerts such as Jazz on the Green and Music at Miller Park. Our tickets often have low-priced options or sometimes we have a lottery to provide very inexpensive seats. And at times, we offer free tickets to nonprofit service organizations.” 

People can support O-pa by attending performances and subscribing to its series; volunteering; or contributing financially, including through corporate and foundation giving. Sound financial management, Squires said, keeps Omaha Performing Arts strong. 

“Although we’re a nonprofit organization, we have [an obligation] to be fiscally responsible and manage our finances efficiently,” she said. “We earn approximately 70 to 75% of our revenues through ticket sales and venue rentals and must rely on contributions for the other 25 to 30%. We must serve as good stewards for those who contribute to us and to ensure the future success of O-pa.”  

Squires’ anniversary year also marks the opening of a new live music venue located near the Holland Center, Steelhouse Omaha, on May 12.

“It will bring new touring shows to Omaha and further activate downtown,” she said. “Going forward, we’re focused on the next phase of our campus expansion: the Center for Arts Engagement next to the Holland Center, which we need to expand programs for students and the community.”

Squires is a member of the Executive Committee and the Board of Governors for The Broadway League and is a voting member for Broadway’s Tony Awards.  She is a past president of the Performing Arts Center Consortium and currently serves as treasurer.  She is a recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award, has been named to the Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor for her leadership role in the arts, and was named one of Musical America’s 2017 30 “Movers and Shapers” in recognition of her achievements. Squires was also honored with the Samuel J. L’Hommedieu Award for Outstanding Achievement in Presenter Management from the Broadway League, co-chairs the national Jimmy Award’s Committee, recently co-chaired the national Audience Engagement Committee.  She’s served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and has spoken at various national conferences.

Squires has also been recognized as “Midlander of the Year” by the Omaha World-Herald, an Omaha Press Club “Face on the Barroom Floor” and a Women’s Center for Advancement “Woman of Distinction.”

After two decades, Squires said Nebraska feels like home. 

“Nebraska is like Pennsylvania without the mountains – the people are friendly and welcoming, there is a great work ethic and a tremendous commitment to community,” she said, jokingly adding, “I still haven’t quite figured out everyone’s love of Runzas.” 

She’s serious, however, about her appreciation for O-pa’s loyal patrons, community partners, philanthropic supporters, board of directors, and committed staff and volunteers.

“I am grateful for everyone’s support,” she said. “We’ve been able to keep building and growing and contributing to our community thanks to this wonderful community.

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