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Robertson painting a new vision of community arts

Jamie Robertson stands in the main gallery of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. Behind him are some historic photographs of the city, on display for the recent 125th anniversary celebration of the city of New York Mills.

Jamie Robertson said he sees the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center as a small part of our larger society.

As he explained it, "In some ways, it's a repository of some of our best parts. Sometimes it's really good for all of us to connect with visions of what our society is and once was."

Robertson unabashedly pours himself into the city's cultural center, finding purpose in the connection he is able to help people form, both with the artistic visions displayed and the people responsible for their creation.

Since taking over as executive director of the NYM Regional Cultural Center two years ago, Robertson has been focusing much of his attention on engaging area citizens in what is going on at the center. "Often times, the people from further away are more amazed than the people who are from here," Robertson said of the center's visitors. "I think in some ways, after 20 years, they start to take it for granted."

In order to help boost local enthusiasm for the center, Robertson has integrated several new community-based events. The center's annual Great American Think-Off is the most widely recognized event, with a history dating almost as far back at the cultural center's two decades.

Robertson said he took note of the event's overwhelming success and decided to promote five other community events throughout the year, including the Talvi Juhla winter celebration, a kite festival, a puppet pageant, the Whiskey Creek Film Festival, and the Longest Night Music Festival.

The kite festival, which was held for the first time this year, was one of Robertson's favorite events. As he watched the kids enjoying themselves, squealing with delight at the whimsical kites, Robertson was surprised to learn that many of those kids had never flown a kite before. Part of what he's trying to do through the community projects is working to bring back these kinds of timeless experiences, for people to appreciate in a new and positive way.

In his free time, which is becoming increasingly less and less frequent, Robertson enjoys cultivating his own artistic side. He enjoys landscape and architectural photography, experimenting with both black and white and color photographs.

One pursuit he's had to set aside for the time being is raising sheep. On his farm, located 13 miles east of New York Mills, Robertson raised sheep for 20 years. He would sell the wool they produced to hand spinners.

Robertson, his wife Sally, and their two children moved to the New York Mills area 25 years ago. Sally is a judge based out of Wadena County. Their kids, Colin and Caitlin, both live out of state now.

Prior to accepting his position at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, Robertson worked for 15 years as the Academic Dean of Leech Lake Tribal College. Robertson says he enjoys the opportunity the cultural center provides him to work closer to home.

Although he has spent much of his life in Minnesota, Robertson is a California native. Before moving to Minnesota 25 years ago, he lived on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Robertson only lived in Minnesota for a few years before the opening of the cultural center. "We became members of the cultural center as soon as it opened," he says of his early involvement with the center. "I wanted to do something in the community I lived in."

Having been a part of the center since its inception, Robertson brings an experienced perspective to the job. Also, with an educational background in American Studies, he says his studies provided a strong focus on art.

"The arts have an elitist label," Robertson said, wanting to dispel this stigma in the lakes area. "We need to do a better job of inviting people in to see what's going on. I think a lot of people don't know as much about it [the cultural center] as we would like them to know."

Part of his plan to open up the center to area citizens is involving local artists and musicians as much as possible. There are already nine concerts scheduled at the center from September through December this year, sure to attract a local crowd. All together, Robertson reports that they hold at least 30 concerts a year.

Ticket prices are kept purposefully low, allowing people who might not otherwise have the opportunity a chance to attend arts events. Robertson says their prices are one-third of what the same artists' concerts cost in St. Cloud or the Twin Cities.

"In its very first years of operation, there was a film festival with some really big names and popular music," Robertson recalls of one of his fondest memories of the cultural center. "I'd like to see us rekindle that kind of connection with some of the best performers in the world."

"Many people who've been here since the early days of the center see it as such a crucial element to the quality of life here. They've made big sacrifices to help the center prosper," Robertson said.

For the most part, it is this group of dedicated arts supporters who have kept the cultural center afloat throughout the years. The single largest funding source the center has is community members from New York Mills and surrounding cities. This amount is then supplemented with grant funding, mostly from Minnesota-based sources.

The cultural center building itself has housed a variety of businesses throughout its longstanding presence in the community. Robertson says some people still know it as the "Karvonen building," from the time period it was owned by the Karvonen family.

At 20 years, the cultural center's ownership of the building has long outlasted many of its predecessors. "It's a reminder to us that nothing is preordained to be permanent," comments Robertson, mentioning again how local involvement and support is crucial to the ongoing success of the center.

He said the biggest resource the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center has is its faithful arts supporters, adding how "it would be a much less interesting town to live in if the cultural center were not here."