Rochester Art Center emerged from two months of a pandemic-imposed shutdown geared to celebrate the center's 75th anniversary. But it will mark the milestone down one key staff member -- curator and artistic director Sheila Dickinson.

Her job was eliminated near the end of December, a victim of declining revenues caused by the pandemic.

Dickinson had joined Rochester's premier arts institution located in Mayo Civic Center more than four years ago, at a time when the RAC was crawling out of a large budget mess that triggered layoffs and pared staff down to the bone. It had been functioning with a skeletal staff for years and 2020 was viewed as an opportunity to grow revenue and create a more robust organization by hiring more staff.

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Instead, 2020 became the wretched year of the pandemic. Daily walk-throughs of the space declined. Revenue fell as result of the RAC's inability to host weddings, meetings and other special events, a key money-maker for the RAC. And while its financial situation is not nearly as perilous as it was five years ago, the RAC is treading water.

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The goal now is to survive the pandemic so the center can begin fundraising and strengthening.

"We are doing the best that we can," said RAC board member Rachel Bohman. "We are trying to make sure our budget is balanced, so that we can come out of the pandemic in a position where we are ready to fundraise and get back to where we've been in the past."

Dickinson said she did not end on bad terms with the RAC, but did not see the layoff coming. She moved her family from St. Paul to take the job four years ago and found the work fulfilling and enjoyable.

"I loved it. Really dynamic, never boring," Dickinson said.

But she also expressed an awareness that she is not alone among professionals in the arts industry to see their livelihoods threatened by the pandemic. From arts venues to community theater to the entertainment industry as a whole, "every day is just waiting for the day when we can come together," she said.

"So many others have suffered job losses," Dickinson said. "I know that I'm resourceful like many other art people, and I will find ways to make art happen, because contemporary art is so relevant right now."

Sheila Dickinson, Rochester Arts Center's artistic director gives a tour at the art center recently. Dickinson's position was eliminated last month after serving the RAC for four years. (Contributed photo)
Sheila Dickinson, Rochester Arts Center's artistic director gives a tour at the art center recently. Dickinson's position was eliminated last month after serving the RAC for four years. (Contributed photo)

No one disputes that the loss of the position and Dickinson is a blow to the arts center. The RAC is down to three salaried staff and 6.5 full-time equivalent positions, said RAC executive director Pamela Hugdahl.

"I think the biggest difference, of course, is that we just won't have that overall consistency from season to season," Bohman said. "We just won't have anybody that can really (oversee) the artistic direction of the art center."

Officials said the center will be producing fewer of its own exhibitions for the main gallery and relying more on guest curators and touring exhibits. The center is also looking to run more efficiently. One idea, called the "one-roof" initiative, would allow the center, Mayo Civic Center and Rochester Civic Theatre to share and consolidate some operations, such as maintenance, to save dollars.

"I think there's an uphill climb for the organization, and my main concern is keeping up the high quality exhibitions that I produced, as they switch to touring exhibitions," Dickinson said.

Even being down a critical figure, RAC enters the year with a slate of exhibitions planned kicking off with its 75th Anniversary Exhibition on Jan. 30. It will be a virtual celebration featuring local musicians, pick-up art kits, silent auction and local food.

Dickinson looks back on her career at RAC with pride. Notable accomplishments included community collaborations that bridged the worlds of art and medicine such as "Genome: Unlocking Life's Code" and the worlds of art and public health such as "Mind Matters."

"They were really exciting to work on," Dickinson said, "and I'm proud of that."