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New York Mills Cultural Center Casts Wider Artistic Net

by Helene Pfaendtner

Two people browsing wares on a table at an art market.
The 13th Annual Artists Bazaar hosted by New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in November 2022.

Bringing arts and cultural enrichment to nearly 1,300 people living in their Minnesota town, the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center is a small organization with big goals.

The magic happens in a charming and historic two-story brick building in the center of an equally charming midwestern town. Years of use have taken a toll on the building, however. To maintain the desired reach of the center, it was evident that some updates needed to be made. The goal of accessibility has always been foundational to the center, as is sustaining the growth of arts and culture in this small town rich with heritage. With this understanding in mind, the cultural center recently launched a new capital campaign. 

A group of people assembling puppetry equipment at an outdoor table.
Participants of the 2022 Kalevala Puppet Pageant get ready for their performance at the Finn Creek Museum.

There is a distinct presence of creativity in New York Mills—shaped and sustained by the center. They offer programs related to fiber art, sculpture, music, and dance as well as other community events. Latham Hetland, chair of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, shared, “When we began recruiting new community members, one of the best ways to get them to buy into our community was by having them visit the center and go to concerts. They were so impressed that something this great could be in such a small town.”  

While the center’s historic building itself is a landmark to both residents and visitors, the impact of the center is felt throughout the town. “I was well into my 30’s when I realized that not all schools are provided with the experience of having visiting artists in their classrooms. It was just such a normal, everyday thing to have writers, musicians, and visual artists from all over the world in our classrooms,” said Sarah Carlson, a local to New York Mills and a board member of the center. “There’s nothing greater than growing up in a town where you don’t blink twice at someone telling you their profession is being a poet.”  

Two flautists, a cellist, and a guitarist on stage with various other instruments and sound equipment.
Her Crooked Heart perform at cohort member New York Mills Regional Cultural Center’s 30th Anniversary Year of Gratitude in January 2020.

The stories that make New York Mills a stand-out town are made possible in large part because of the center. The new capital campaign is designed to maintain and broaden the impact the center can make, so that more community members can experience the rich opportunities available to them. But, like any large-scale project, improvements must start small.

The three goals of the capital campaign are to survive, enliven, and endure. The first steps in what will be the first stage of the capital campaign include preservation work on the building’s exterior, like installing more efficient windows and re-building the front steps. From there, changes include better equipping the center to host events by adding an enhanced sound system as well as making the center more visible in, and outside of, the town. New highway signs and signage for sculptures around New York Mills will be a part of this second phase. Finally, creating “instagrammable” spaces and adding wayfinding signage around the town help make up the third phase. The second and third phases also include significant updates to the center’s retreat house, a space for artists in residence to create in the town.

The New York Mills Cultural Center has been a consistent presence in community life for the last three decades. It is well-loved by many, and the team continuously embraces connection with people they serve. The center doesn’t shy away from community ideas, either. “My favorite part of working in New York Mills with the Cultural Center is approaching the staff with an idea, and the immediate response being, ‘How can we make this happen?’” said Pam Robinson, a former board member. It is refreshing to see the action-oriented and productive approach the center takes when tackling community needs and highlights the power of being embedded in a place. The center proves, in the words of Latham Hetland, “when a small town gets together and focuses on a project, things can happen very quickly.”

The new capital campaign is designed with sustainability in mind. From providing a space for future generations to explore their creative side to widening the audience the Cultural Center currently reaches, the capital campaign will help with it all. In sum, the campaign tackles practical repairs, upgrading the retreat house, and making the Cultural Center more visible throughout New York Mills. The center is calling on their community to help fund this campaign and encourage those who have been touched by their work and programs to donate to the campaign. The proposed changes and upgrades are large, but will, in the words of Latham Hetland, cement the Cultural Center “as the true foundation of our downtown community that it is.”  

The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center was part of the Community Creativity Cohort 2, a group of 40 organizations that are making art central to their community-building efforts. The Cohort was funded by the Bush Foundation and operated by Arts Midwest from 2019-2022. Check out our History to learn more about this program. This story was created in partnership with NewPublica.