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New York Mills Regional Cultural Center celebrates 30th anniversary

The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a special retrospective exhibit tracing the growth of the Cultural Center from its humble beginnings in a barn outside of town to its current home in a historic downtown building in New York Mills.

New York Mills Regional Cultural Center exterior
The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center is located in downtown New York Mills. The building was built in 1885 as a general store and later housed Karvonen Furniture for many years before becoming the Cultural Center in 1992.
Contributed / New York Mills Regional Cultural Center
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NEW YORK MILLS — Art can be found anywhere and sometimes in the most unexpected places.

The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center is a rural hub for “creativity, community vitality and lifelong learning in the arts,” and it celebrates its 30th year on Main Avenue with a retrospective.

“We actually were started as an artist residency program originally and we were incorporated as that in 1990,” said Betsy Roder, executive director of the Cultural Center.

Since its incorporation in 1990, the Cultural Center has been passionate about connecting people to artists and rich cultural experiences in rural Minnesota, “celebrating the local and being a window to the world,” according to officials.

“My first role here was the gift shop manager and the arts retreat coordinator, and the arts retreat is our residency program,” said Roder, who has been with the Cultural Center since 2011 and became the executive director in 2015.

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Betsy Roder
Betsy Roder
Contributed / Betsy Roder

The New York Mills Arts Retreat was founded in 1990 by John Davis, a Minneapolis College of Art and Design graduate, as an artist residency program on an old farm outside of town. The original plan was for artists to stay in the renovated barn.

“He was just looking to move to a more rural area,” Roder said. “He bought an old farmhouse and was renovating it, fixing it up, and wanted to start an artist residency program there, like in the barn, and that was his original vision. “

Roder said Davis was a visionary who painted houses to earn extra money and ended up getting to know the locals when they invited him in for lunch or supper when the work was done.

“He found that people were very interesting and they were educated and they were talking about art and philosophy and really asking big questions,” Roder said.

Davis’ vision grew from the original residency program to a multidisciplinary art center located in downtown New York Mills.

When Davis heard the “old Karvonen building” might be torn down after the furniture business moved to Perham, he approached the Karvonen family, who donated the empty building.

Karvonen & Son Furniture store in downtown New York Mills
The Karvonen & Son Furniture store was located on Main Avene North in downtown New York Mills before the building became the home of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.
Contributed / New York Mills Regional Cultural Center

“It’s the oldest building in town,” Roder said of the building on Main Avenue North in downtown New York Mills.

The building was built in 1885 as a general store before housing Karvonen Furniture for many years. City officials decided that instead of spending the money for razing the building, it would be invested in remodeling and rebuilding as an art center, according to Roder.

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“The city at that time used $35,000 to help with renovation costs. … And with that money, they also got a grant from the McKnight Foundation,” Roder said. “And then basically John got a group of volunteers together and there was a lot of sweat equity.”

With a dedicated team of volunteers and backers, the building opened its doors to the public in 1992 as the home of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.

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“The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center has been woven into the fabric of the community ever since, providing high quality arts opportunities that are normally only found in much larger cities,” according to Roder.

More than 180 events take place at the Cultural Center each year, attracting more than 6,500 visitors annually with music; visual artists; workshops; theater performances; authors; the Great American Think-Off; community festivals and events; a sculpture park; and more.

“A Look Back: NYMRCC Celebrates 30 Years on Main Avenue” is a special new exhibit in the Cultural Center gallery that is open to the public through Dec. 3. The retrospective celebrates the growth of the Cultural Center.

“It's certainly a milestone we're very proud of,” Roder said. “And we are very grateful to all of those who have not only been here before us as staff members, but all of the community members and businesses and organizations that have supported us over the last 30 years.”

New York Mills Regional Cultural Center anniversary poster
A poster for the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center's 30th anniversary includes figures from 1992 when the Cultural Center opened its doors on Main Avenue North in downtown New York Mills.
Contributed / New York Mills Regional Cultural Center

The exhibit includes original floor plans, news articles, posters, the work of past visiting artists — including the art of the very first artist-in-residence who came to New York Mills — and more.

“It really does take the support of a lot of people and businesses and organizations to make to make something like this go, particularly in a rural area and a small town like New York Mills of about 1,200 people,” Roder said.

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President Barack Obama brought national attention to New York Mills in 2011 in his appropriations request for the new “Our Town” program of the National Endowment for the Arts. The former president cited the city’s decision to use $35,000 to help with renovation costs.

“In communities across the nation, investments in the arts have made a profound impact. … Within five years after this investment, 17 new businesses opened in town creating 210 new jobs – representing a 40% increase in the number of jobs in this community,” Obama said.

For more information about the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, call 218-385-3339 or visit www.kulcher.org .

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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