When Pamela Hugdahl became the executive director of Rochester Art Center last summer, she faced a pandemic, financial difficulties … and nearly 75 years of history.

The 36,000-square-foot RAC has come a long way from its beginnings in a couple of unused rooms of the Rochester Public Library, and it nearly went under in 2017. But Hugdahl, who started her new position on June 1—one month before RAC reopened after three months of COVID-19 lockdown—is optimistic we need art more than ever.

And she’s looking back as much as she’s looking forward to deliver it: “We are going back to our roots. We are now focusing on our mission, on our articles of incorporation, and what we were founded to do in 1946.”

What was it like to start this new job in the middle of a pandemic?

Everything was in slow motion, but that gave me a lot of time to assess in a way I haven’t been able to do in past positions. It gave us an opportunity to look at things we can repair or tighten up so that we can be much stronger as we come out of the pandemic. This is Rochester’s only contemporary fine art museum. It’s a really valuable part of the community. We dug out the original 1946 articles of incorporation that said the center shall show the vital relationship of the arts to our daily lives, joining with schools, churches, libraries and other community groups to make Rochester a cultural center worthy of its scientific achievement. I just want to build on the foundation of what this organization has meant and was intended to be for Rochester. Bringing the community back in and making sure local artists feel like they are represented, and filling up our gift shop for them to be able to make sales again. We do need people’s support, and we need to grow our membership.

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What do you say to community members who haven’t felt the Rochester Art Center has played that role in recent years? Who’ve felt the community aspect has been lacking?

Time’s change. We are going back to our roots. Workshops are going to become more central to our programming. Historically, we were doing workshops before we were doing exhibitions, and I’ve think they’ve lost some of their notoriety in our visibility in our program offerings. Exhibitions took center stage and we overextended ourselves. We’d been seeing ourselves as rental space and not a mission-centered non-profit. We are now focusing on our mission, on our articles of incorporation, and what we were founded to do in 1946.

What do you mean by workshops?

Our Total Arts Day Camp was started by Judy Onofrio in 1971, and we’ve been doing it ever since. This year is the 50th year of the Total Arts Day Camp. Our education outreach coordinator was able to pivot and run smoothly with COVID precautions in place last summer, and also added a kids’ winter arts workshop. These kinds of offerings were important in our founding—to bring in professional artists and instructors to teach classes and to be able to offer rich experiences through our classes. As part of that, we’ve decided we’re going to return one of our gallery spaces to studio spaces.

Rochester Art Center Director, Pamela Hugdahl, February 8, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Art Center Director, Pamela Hugdahl, February 8, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

How else are you adding more of a community element?

I would like to emphasize the artists in our region. It’s a strategy … that not only bolsters our community and the artists in our community, but it’s also financially much more tenable to draw local than national. In March, we’re mounting an exhibition to celebrate 75 years, and one of the first things people will see is some history and art from our very small collection. We’re going to bring some stuff out and show people what we’ve got. In that celebration exhibition will be abstract paintings from William Saltzman, the executive director of the Art Center from 1948 to 1964.

What is the role of art in these unprecedented times?

I have always looked at the arts as a catalyst for change, and a pathway for understanding. When you start to really look and learn about the artwork rather than just walking past it, you realize there’s a much bigger story. I think art can really help us learn new ways of thinking. Our volunteer docent Carrie Robinson-Cannon guided us on an Art4Trails walking tour, and one of the pieces she talked about was Katya Roberts’ Unbroken behind the Art Center right along the Zumbro River. It’s a white aluminum sculpture that has a lot of folds in it. Carrie talked about how Katya had taken a piece of paper and folded it many times, and in the end it’s all these varying ridges and splits in the paper, but it’s unbroken and it’s like our life. A flat sheet of paper doesn’t do that much for us visually, but we get through life and these things make us more beautiful, all those complications and ridges—and pandemics. It was a wonderful moment to reflect on, that these challenges don’t need to break us.

What recent programs or exhibitions were influenced by current events?

I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished this year. Our Total Arts Day camp typically had 20-30 students here every day for a week. We knew we couldn’t cram 20 or 30 students in a classroom during the pandemic, so we’ve had groups of 5-8 students, masks and physical distancing required, and they each have their own art bin with supplies no one else touches. Lots of hand washing. Play time in the 4,000-square foot grand lobby for eight students is a lot of fun! I was so happy to see everyone healthy and that opportunity for these kids to interact in person. We’ve also started doing personalized workshops for small groups. For example, a group of Mayo teens working through pain management have been coming to work on portraits.

For exhibitions, we had Lifeline, which was portraits of Rochester essential workers by Rochester artists. And Creative Confinement: Art Under Quarantine, all art created during quarantine in the early part of the pandemic. One artist was Piotr Szyhalski, who created a propaganda poster every day responding to something with the pandemic or the civil unrest related to George Floyd. Another artist, Areca Roe, had more of a fun spin with photos of her family that showed how kooky and overboard we can go in our domestic life. We had Expressions of Clinician Well-being, in partnership with Mayo; clinicians creating artwork to show how they’re processing this difficult time. Then, Grief Unmasked; a show of masks created by teens going through the grief process. So we’re finding lots of ways to engage with the community and it’s exciting. Even though we’re running really lean and there’s a pandemic, I feel like we’re finding creative ways to still be relevant and present.

Rochester Art Center Director, Pamela Hugdahl, February 8, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Art Center Director, Pamela Hugdahl, February 8, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

How lean are you running?

We ended up reducing/eliminating two positions—an event manager position, because there are just no weddings at this point, and a curatorial position. That was a difficult loss for us, but necessary. And when it comes to event management, we are working earnestly with Mayo Civic Center to go under a one-roof plan that would house all of our event rental functions. As a non-profit, I don’t want to be running people’s weddings—that’s not what we should be doing. I’m excited about the partnership with the Civic Center.

Much has been written about the financial difficulties of the Art Center—especially now with COVID. That had to be something you considered before moving here.

I definitely felt like I was taking a deep dive coming here. I’m really putting in a lot of faith that this is going to work. I had looked at the recent financials and knew that there was quite a difficult history. But since I’ve been here and have been doing research in the records, I see that it goes back all the way to when this building was built. That did not surprise me at all. It was a tumultuous time—a common time for Art Centers to do big expansions. It was a trend and everyone jumped on the bandwagon and these problems became common among Art Centers.

What’s your plan for making the Art Center financially viable?

What I’ve seen is a lot of support from the city and Mayo. So there’s part of me that hopes that those entities will continue to help us through this rocky patch. But we know we can’t keep relying on that long-term. We need to become a more self-sustaining organization, re-growing our member base, spreading out the support we’ve seen from the community, and really making sure we’re connecting with the people coming in the door. We have to engage with our programs—making sure this community feels valued and engaged.

Another big aspect for me, and it’s the way you look at the coin, but we haven’t been including depreciations and amortizations in our profit-and-loss statement at the end of the year. So everything seemed fine, but now we’re $200,000 in the red—and there was this feeling that that’s OK because it’s a fake idea of what the building cost. But if we’re not making up for it, we’re not saving for the future. So starting this year in July, we budgeted to overcome that depreciation and amortization. That means we have to do everything else leaner and we need to fundraise more. And hopefully we’ll be able to start saving for the future.

You spent 13 years at The Walker in Minneapolis. What do you bring from that experience?

I started at The Walker as a gallery monitor and expressed my interest in what was happening behind the scenes. So I worked in archives. I worked on the installation crew for major exhibitions—tearing down walls, painting. I worked in public relations. In registration. Even facility maintenance, changing light bulbs and collecting recycling. I learned a lot of the ways a museum is supposed to operate, nuts and bolts you can’t learn any other way until you’ve done it. My hunch is the Rochester Art Center architect referenced The Walker when this building was being designed. It’s things like the keys, the elevators, the layout of the basement, the tile in the bathrooms. I feel like I’m in a mini Walker. So it’s very comforting.

Rochester Art Center Director, Pamela Hugdahl, February 8, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Art Center Director, Pamela Hugdahl, February 8, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

You’re originally from Minnesota?

I’m originally from Duluth. I hightailed it out of Duluth when I was 17. Within two weeks of the day I graduated, I moved to Minneapolis. I had just finished a year abroad in Japan and was doing a gap year. I walked onto the campus of Minneapolis Community and Technical College as part of my route home from work and fell in love. The flexibility of a community and technical college was what I needed. So I enrolled in art history and anthropology, and between that and working at the Walker, it prepared me to meet my goals.

You moved to Rochester with your husband and two children. How do you like the city?

We all love it. With the pandemic we haven’t been able to explore a lot of what Rochester offers, but we’ve really enjoyed the parks, Silver Lake, and the 85 miles of public bike trails. We appreciate the diversity and the food options available. We both really like ethnic foods and the last few places we lived we didn’t have accessibility to a co-op or Asian grocery. Here it’s like oh, we can go grocery shopping in our town—and we can even bike or walk there! So that’s been wonderful.

What’s next?

The most notable project we’re working on is our water exhibition in partnership with the City of Rochester, which will open this spring. The focus will be on water quality and access to water, with a science and educational component, and then the Art Center is bringing in a companion exhibition of work by David Bowen.

What will the Rochester Art Center look like in five years?

In my mind, I’m in a three-year timetable. In three years, I want things feeling a lot more vibrant. We really want a café on our patio and in our grand lobby. It’s a revenue stream that I think makes a lot of sense—and, for me, when you come to the Art Center and you’ve walked two blocks or more to get here, you’re going to want to sit down and have a beverage and a little sustenance. So it’s really important to me that we have something here for our guests and patrons to nourish them in this beautiful setting.

What do you want community members to know about the future of Rochester Art Center?

In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s until we moved into this building, there was a tremendous stability, a creative energy in the Art Center. A connection. I went to UPS yesterday, and the guy working there realized I was from the RAC, and said, “My daughters were the first people to exhibit in the new galleries!” I can feel that connection that people had to the old Art Center. From what I can tell, it was a warm, welcoming, small place that invited inquiry, and we got a little too big for our britches. It’s gotten this reputation of being cold, austere, an elitist place. We lost sight of who we are and what we’re supposed to be in this community. And we’re going to work on getting back to the way people were relating to the Art Center in the ‘50s through the ‘90s.

The Art Center, in 75 years

1946: Rochester Art Center begins as a dream of its first board president, Newton Holland. The founding board members want “to join with the schools, the churches, the library and other community groups to make Rochester a cultural center worthy of its scientific achievement.” Its first exhibits are in the unused upstairs rooms of the Rochester Public Library.

1948: The Art Center moves to a small abandoned church on the corner of West Center Street and Third Avenue Northwest. A fund drive allows the board to build a balcony, loft, furnace and toilet. William Saltzman is named the first executive director, a post he’ll hold until 1964.

1948: The first exhibition in the new space is titled Everyday Art for Everybody, and features a display of well-designed, useful articles for the home.

Mid-1950s: Experiencing growing pains, the board looks to expand the Art Center to accommodate its many activities, which now also include classes, exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations, meetings, and even the founding meeting (and first rehearsals) of Rochester Civic Theatre. The City Council grants the board’s request for public land in Mayo Park.

November 15, 1956: The Rochester Art Center leases land along the Zumbro River for 50 years for the sum of $1 per year.

September 1, 1957: The board holds a groundbreaking ceremony, followed by a fund drive to build a new center.

March 23, 1958: The new Rochester Art Center, located on the north side of Mayo Civic Center, opens.

Mid-’60s: Gene Buckley serves as executive director.

1969: Judy Onofrio steps in as acting director.

1971: Judy Onofrio establishes Total Arts Day Camps, a tradition that continues to this day.

1972: B.J. Shigaki starts her decades’ long tenure as executive director.

Mid-’70s: Rochester Art Center begins including national exhibits in its offerings.

1994: Rochester Art Center’s bead-working exhibition, Pure Vision: American Bead Artists, travels to other major art centers across the nation, giving RAC a national presence for the first time.

1999: The board launches a capital campaign to build a new center. They feel a new space is necessary due to the expansion of the Mayo Civic Center, which “severely decreased access to the Art Center.”

2003: The capital campaign reaches its goal of $8.2 million (with a city share of $3.1 million).

2004: Rochester Art Center moves into its current 36,000-square-foot facility. The copper, zinc, and glass structure is attached to the south side of Mayo Civic Center, overlooking the Zumbro River.

2005: Denise Sorom, who’d been on the RAC staff since 2003, is named executive director.

2008: Sarah Stauder is named executive director.

2011: Stauder tells the City Council that $23,000 must be raised from members of the community, or the center will have to consider closing its doors.

2012: Shannon Fitzgerald is named executive director.

2015: Megan Johnston is named executive director.

2017: Lee Koch is named executive director.

December 2017: Brian Austin is named executive director, a position he’ll hold through 2019.

2019-20: Rochester Art Center reports a $220,000 budget shortfall for the fiscal year.

June 2020: Pamela Hugdahl is named executive director.

2021: Rochester Art Center celebrates its 75th anniversary. To commemorate the milestone, Art Bash will be held on June 5. Community members will be invited to celebrate with both online and in-person activities. For more info, check out the Rochester Art Center website at rochesterartcenter.org.

Sources: Rochester Art Center, Post Bulletin archives, B.J. Shigaki

What does Rochester Art Center need to do to be successful?

“The key to a successful art center is access and outreach. It’s all about people. You need to make it easy for the community and volunteers to walk in those doors and be involved. That’s how you build enthusiasm and energy.”

— B.J. Shigaki, RAC executive director from 1972 to 2005

“For the Rochester Art Center to be successful, it’s important to connect with the greater Minnesota art community—including museums, funding agencies, and artists. In the past, these connections have been strong allies and support for the RAC.”

— Judy Onofrio, artist, founder of the RAC’s Total Arts Day Camp, and acting RAC director from 1969 to 1972

“Having a balanced mix of local, regional, and national artists as well fostering as many local partnerships as possible to increase the community’s sense of belonging and involvement in Rochester Art Center’s programming.”

— Denise Sorom, executive director from 2005 to 2008

“Honor its history of excellence in contemporary art programming while connecting with the community through innovative experiences and education programs.”

— Naura Anderson, founding director of Threshold Arts, and RAC staff member from 2006-2015