A woman smiles in front of a wall covered in rainbow graffiti.
Shannon Claire, the new executive director of Lincoln Calling, at the backlot of Duffy’s Tavern in Lincoln, Nebraska. The backlot of Duffy’s Tavern hosts one of the many stages at Lincoln Calling, a music and arts festival that showcases local and touring musicians and artists. Photo by Audrey Hertel / NNS

A haze of smoke fills Jake’s Cigar Bar on a Wednesday afternoon around 5 p.m. People file into the local hot spot in waves, debriefing one another about their days at work. 

But the workday isn’t over for Shannon Claire. She sits alone in a booth by the door with her laptop open, talking on the phone about this year’s Lincoln Calling music and arts festival. 

Although Jake’s seems like an unlikely place to do work, Claire is no stranger to conducting business in loud spaces. 

For nearly a decade, Claire has worked inside the local venues and dive bars that line 14th and O streets. She has spent years as a part of the Lincoln arts and music community and has held a variety of responsibilities. She was a freelance photographer, an employee at the Bourbon Theatre, a radio show host and development director at 89.3 KZUM and an employee at Lincoln Calling – a festival featuring music, art and education. 

In January, Spencer Munson stepped down as the executive director of Lincoln Calling after four years, and Claire filled his place. This role change is historic for the festival, as Claire is the first woman to hold the position. Under her new title, Claire said she is aiming to empower underrepresented individuals both on and off stage. 

Claire grew up in Los Angeles, a place with a thriving arts and culture scene. Unlike people who flee their small hometowns for big cities, Claire did the opposite. When she was 18, her family moved to Wilber, a town with nearly four million fewer people than her former home. She lived there for eight months but moved back to California with no intention of returning to Nebraska. 

“It was the flip of a culture shock,” Claire said.

Claire lived in San Francisco around the time of the Recession. Due to the economic downfall, Claire said she had a difficult time finding work and trying to fill her creative void as a photographer. According to Claire, she became overwhelmed, which prompted her to move back to Nebraska after her family offered her a place to stay in Lincoln.

As a creative, Claire was passionate about art and culture but didn’t know where to find them in an unfamiliar city. But after getting hired for a freelance photography job, Claire was introduced to some artists at Indigo Bridge, a bookstore located in Lincoln’s Haymarket. This created a ripple effect, and she ended up connecting with more of them.  

She then met people from Hear Nebraska – a Nebraska-focused music publication – and began photographing for them. She soon found herself swept up by the music community and formed many new relationships with people who had similar interests. 

“My heart and soul connected so much,” Claire said. 

Her photography work landed her a job in Los Angeles. She moved to California once again, but when her job ended, she was compelled to return to Nebraska’s capital city.

“I made more of a connection with myself through inspiring and heartfelt relationships here in those two years than in my time in San Francisco,” Claire said. “That was really telling for me.” 

After moving back, she worked in numerous music industry-related positions at different organizations and venues in Lincoln, but her work with Lincoln Calling was always constant. She began by building partnerships with the festival while she worked at KZUM. She then became the Night Market manager and eventually earned a leadership role in 2020 running marketing and communications and working alongside Munson.

Claire helped build an operations team consisting predominantly of women and individuals from diverse backgrounds in 2021. She said Lincoln Calling has done a lot of work over the last five years to incorporate diversity, and the staff has reflected on the changes needed to make the festival a more inclusive space. 

“Myself and a couple of other people that are also on the team are taking a really good look in the mirror of who’s producing the festival, how are we doing it and making sure that it’s not performative,” Claire said. 

Makayla Jameson, secretary of the Lincoln Calling Board, said Claire greatly contributes to an inclusive atmosphere by creating welcoming spaces for everyone involved in the festival. This inclusivity manifests through the diverse artists and educators Lincoln Calling hosts and the individuals involved in the organization. 

“This is the first time in history that Lincoln Calling has mostly been women,” Jameson said. “That is so empowering to me. And I just think moving forward, our biggest vision is to create a space that everybody feels welcome.”

Claire emphasized this mission, explaining the importance of representation and celebration of artists from different backgrounds on a large scale – one that stretches beyond the close-knit creative circles that already recognize them. 

She said she wants to shine a light on these individuals through Lincoln Calling and transform Nebraska into a viable destination for arts and culture – something it’s not always recognized as. 

“I’m able to continue to do that work that I’ve been doing, connecting with people and then uplifting and supporting people that need it, that deserve it, whether it’s minority communities, marginalized individuals, and artists, and musicians and educators,” Claire said. “I’m all about just offering people a platform.”

Michelle Zlomke, the Lincoln Calling Board chair, echoed these efforts and said the festival’s team is making strides to ensure this happens. 

“We’re really brainstorming and working our connections to find out about people who may be underrepresented – especially in the performing arts sector – in our community,” Zlomke said. “We don’t want to be a festival that’s just playing headliners that you would be familiar with.”

Throughout Claire’s time working in the Lincoln community, she said she has seen the power of connecting individuals through art and music. For Claire, Lincoln Calling will give people the opportunity to experience the unity it creates.

“There’s just such an abundance of love within the creative community here,” Claire said. “A lot of us are seeking and searching for it, but not only to receive it, but to give it. You know, I think a lot of people try to do that through their art – that’s something that kind of makes us all come together.”

Senior Journalism and ADPR major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln