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Re-energized art center aims to be 'more to the community than just a museum'

Re-energized art center aims to be 'more to the community than just a museum'

The Rochester Art Center is drawing up some new plans. 

Under new management, the center has been working for the past year to increase public engagement and community collaboration. By adding new classes, family programming and resources for local artists, the leadership team hopes to redefine its image and create a more welcoming environment.

"We're opening ourselves up more to the community than we ever have," said Chad Allen, director of community engagement for RAC. "We're not this esoteric building that you can't come through. We're very open, we're very accessible, and we're willing to go that extra step to make sure that we're more inclusive."


Though well known across the state for its rotation of modern art exhibitions, a disconnect has developed over the years between the center and the community at large. It has a reputation of being too inward-focused and standoffish. Local artists have complained about a lack of resources and exposure.

When Megan Johnston took over last year as executive director of a RAC, she recognized the issue immediately. Her first thought walking into the building was: "Where are the kids? Where are the people?"

As RAC celebrates its 70th year of existence, Johnston and her team are working to reestablish the center as a vital public resource — a place where artists can gather and connect. "We want to build this arts ecosystem," Johnston said.

Photo: Megan Johnston / The Med City Beat

How exactly does that happen? 

"Your question is like, 'how do you make friends?' You got to be a supportive and good friend," said Johnston. "So we go to things, we support artists, we meet with them, we help develop projects that don't have anything to do with us."

She added, "It isn't go to just shift overnight, but we have some real changes that are being made. It's more of an open-door policy."

Among the initiatives introduced in the past year:

  • Art After Hours. The art center is opening its doors to the public every Thursday evening for a rotating lineup of workshops, lectures, life drawings and open mic nights.
  • Community collaborations such as the PlaceMakers Prototyping Festival and Art4Trails
  • Patient outreach. RAC is working with Mayo Clinic to increase interactions with patients and visitors.

The art center has also been working to provide more support for local artists, from hosting more showings and performances to providing tutorials on how to submit proposals for public art installations. 

"We're more to the community than just a museum," said Allen. "We're here to teach people about art, and to engage them with it — not just looking at it, but actually engaging them through art."

Danny Solis, a spoken word artist who is helping organize the upcoming Day of the Dead Poets Slam at RAC, said he believes the staff has done a better job in the past year with their outreach efforts and bringing in groups that traditionally have not felt comfortable coming into the building.


Their efforts are "incredibly important," said Solis. "Why is it here if not to engage with the community in which it exists?" 

RAC is not alone in its transition. Museums and art centers across the country are making strides to become more connected with their communities. It's based on the idea that engaging with art is more than walking around a gallery.

"We're more of a community-facing organization that has more to offer than just super high-level art," said Allen. "While you're still getting the high-level art, there are things that are more accessible." 

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(Cover photo: The Med City Beat)

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