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30 years of 'cultivating the arts' — New York Mills Cultural Center celebrates building anniversary

The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center recently hosted a celebration of 30 years in their building and 32 years in operation.

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Betsy Roder points out historical photos of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center's building, which they've now been in for 30 years.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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NEW YORK MILLS — "30 years is a long time," Betsy Roder, the executive director of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, shared at the center's recent anniversary celebration. Since 1992, the center has been located inside the historical building on New York Mills' Main Avenue.

Since then, the center has grown and changed with New York Mills alongside it. Now, the center averages about 180 events per year, Roder said. On Saturday, Nov. 19, the center hosted an event to celebrate and reflect on those 30 years. In the gallery, a display of different art pieces and event flyers from throughout the years was admired by on-lookers. The display, which was set up by Artistic Director Cheryl Bannes, will run through the beginning of December.

While only a snapshot of the hundreds of events they've had throughout the years, Roder said, it allows for a peek into the past. Items displayed include a poster for the first Continental Divide Music and Film Festival in 1993, a flyer advertising the 12th Great American Think-Off in 2004 and even old newspaper articles about the center's story.

"It would be impossible to share everything," Roder said when reflecting on the display. "So this is a sampling that we're happy to be able to share."

New York Mills Cultural Center
The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center located on Main Avenue.
Perham Focus file photo

Though the cultural center has been on Main Avenue for 30 years, the organization itself has existed for about 32. In 1990, John Davis, the founder of the center, came up with an idea. He wanted to start an artist residency program outside of his farm.

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"Back in the late 1980s, early '90s, these kind of projects in rural America didn't exist," Davis said. He found that a lot of foundations didn't believe that the arts could thrive in rural areas, so he took it upon himself to prove them wrong.

"He started to dream bigger about an art center," Roder said. "A multidisciplinary art center that could do a lot more than just an artist residency."

Two years into his mission, the oldest building in New York Mills became available. Built around 1885 as a general store, it also later became the Karvonen's furniture store before they decided to move towns. Eventually, the family donated the building for the purpose of an art center.

The building, which had been empty for a number of years, was in the talks to be demolished. Instead, John Davis swooped in and asked the city council to give him $35,000 to renovate the building and open an art center instead of demolishing it. The city council approved his request, and the rest is history.

"It all worked out," Roder said. "That was a pretty significant gift at that time. It was 1991."

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The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center filled its gallery space with different art pieces and posters they've gathered throughout the past 30 years.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Because of the help he received along the way, Davis was able to create the cultural center as Otter Tail County residents know it today. Roder herself, who was raised in New York Mills, got to grow up with its arts and influence around her.

"The first time I really talked with (Roder), she just said, very matter-of-factly, growing up with artists from Poland and France and Israel was just a fact of life," Davis said, reflecting on the center's impact throughout the years. "She didn't know otherwise. That's the amazing thing about art in small communities. If you could be acclimated to different people and different cultures and different ways of thinking, I think that people, especially kids growing up, have a different perspective on the world."

It was amazing for Davis to return for the anniversary celebration and see that the art center he envisioned has only continued to grow and thrive in exactly the way he always hoped it would. In his eyes, something society is often missing is the celebration of differences. He believes the arts create these celebrations and spark innovations alongside creative problem-solving.

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"If you create reasons for people to come back to small towns, they'll come back," he said. "Arts and culture are an important part of that."

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The cultural center's symbol, a man operating a tractor, sits on display in the gallery space.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Seeing so many people come out to celebrate the cultural center's anniversary was also nice for Roder to witness. During the event's reception, people who've been with the center from the very beginning got up to the microphone to share their memories with the crowd around them — how something that used to be a spark in Davis' mind grew to be so big.

A lot has changed over the years, but Davis is still very grateful for the community around New York Mills. Without them, the center wouldn't exist the way that it does today. In fact, the center has been recognized nationally.

In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts created a new project called Our Town, which offered grants to communities for arts and economic development. Then-President Barack Obama made an appropriations request to congress for funding the project in which he listed New York Mills as an example of economic development through the arts, thanks to the cultural center.

"Just a huge thank you," John Davis said to the community. "Sometimes, when you're in a small town, and you're in the middle of things that are amazing, sometimes you take it for granted. You don't realize that there could be ripples that happen all over the country. Just remind folks that New York Mills — that this idea that happened here, 30-some years ago — has really had an impact all across the country … It's pretty amazing that the leadership here really helped make that possible."

For more information about the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, go to kulcher.org . They can also be reached at 218-385-3339.

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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