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Local View: Looking for art? It's still at the Depot

From the column: "Can you imagine ... the Depot without the annual DAI Members Show? Happily, no one has to."

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Amy Varsek, exhibitions director for the Duluth Art Institute, hangs a painting for the DAI’s annual Member Show in 2019.
News Tribune file photo
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If you’re looking for fun and educational activities that everyone can enjoy, come visit the Depot.

We say that enthusiastically; though a few months ago, we weren’t so sure we could.

Our hesitation began last February, when we learned that the two-year lease we had signed just a month before for the Duluth Art Institute’s longtime space in the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center was being summarily abrogated by the county. So, too, were those of our sister arts organizations which, like us, shared space in the former railroad terminal since its designation as the region’s premier cultural center in the 1970s.

The county’s justification for breaking the lease was a little-known and never-before-enforced state law requiring it to advertise for bids from the existing occupants and others interested in the space. Although none of our previous county attorneys had ever given an opinion on the statute and, upon learning about it, our legislative delegation offered to sponsor its repeal, we never received a satisfactory explanation from the county of why the sudden rush to enforce it.

Most jarring, the request-for-proposals process came with no guarantee that we would prevail, meaning we could be forced to move in less than a year. Further, the county proposed a significantly higher rate for the space: more than four times our current rent. Both scenarios would have us run afoul of museum best practices, in which budgets are projected methodically and deliberately and exhibits are scheduled years ahead of time.

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Beyond completing the application itself, the process consumed a significant amount of time for both of us — ironically coming just as the Duluth Art Institute began receiving national recognition in the arts world as a model of diversity and decolonization. We have spent countless hours negotiating, re-budgeting, and, frankly, seriously investigating alternative spaces.

The one bright spot was the unqualified support we received from arts organizations across the state and beyond — and, most importantly, from our members and friends. Can you imagine, they asked, the Depot without the annual DAI Members Show?

Happily, no one has to. After months of negotiations, in November, we reached an agreement with the county. Like any, it entails compromise and some sacrifices; but it is workable, at least for the short term. Beyond that, the process has forced us to re-evaluate all our needs to determine the most appropriate facilities to serve our members, exhibitors, and patrons. That includes those activities at our Lincoln Park building — where youth and adult classes are held and resources such as our ceramic kilns are offered — and the exhibits at the Depot.

Those exhibits remain in a great space, made more so by continuing in the company of our equally inspiring arts and cultural neighbors. The county administration has also shown a new commitment to supporting us all and promoting the facility as “a multi-generation attraction with something to interest all ages.”

But don’t take their word for it — or ours. Come see for yourself. We think you’ll be glad we’re still here.

Christina Woods is executive director of the Duluth Art Institute. She may be reached at cwoods@duluthartinstitute.org. Robin Washington is the art institute’s board president. He may be reached at robin@robinwashington.com.

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Christina Woods
Duluth Art Institute board president Robin Washington stands in an art gallery in front of four paintings by his late mother, artist and activist Jean Birkenstein Washington.
Robin Washington
Photo / Kim Kosmatka. Contributed / Robin Washington

Related Topics: LOCAL VIEWARTTHE DEPOT
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