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Newsmakers in 2019: Austin, Dickinson guide RAC to the black

January 5, 2019
Artistic director Sheila Dickinson and executive director Brian Austin of the Rochester Art Center. The two had filled their respective roles on an interim basis for about a year before the board made the jobs permanent.

The Rochester Art Center has reversed its financial fortunes as the museum anticipates running with a small surplus in 2018 after running six-figure deficits three consecutive years.

However, members of the museum’s board of directors and the museum’s new leadership are looking for gains beyond the ledger. In September, the board named Brian Austin executive director and Sheila Dickinson artistic director. The two had filled their respective roles on an interim basis for about a year.

Their appointments were part of a board plan to find people with ideas for the center’s future before hiring anyone for permanent leadership roles.

Austin and Sheila were a good fit, said Tracy Austin (no relation to Brian Austin), board president.

“They both work very, very well together,” she said.

Brian Austin said he sees a rising culture of creative, entrepreneurship and growing diversity in Rochester. The art center can be supportive of those trends, find new partnerships and get support from a growing creative class.

“We want what we do here to be in the context of the community,” Austin said. “How do we engage with it holistically.”

In talking about plans for 2019, Austin pulls from his background Ph.D in sociology and touts the experience and backgrounds new hires and Dickinson, a Twin Cities art historian, will bring to the center. The center will be a place where culturally relevant exhibits, events and conversations will happen in 2019, he said.

“We want to explore what is current in culture,” Austin said. “What are we discussing and how does it animate our lives?”

Those conversations bring people from multiple backgrounds together, he added.

He pointed to the Smithsonian’s “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” exhibit the art center hosted in cooperation with Mayo Clinic. It sparked conversations about genetics and human nature and brought about 9,000 people through the museum.

“It’s not just about ‘is the art pretty’” Austin said. “What does it say about the world now?”

Austin credited Dickinson for finding and bringing relevant exhibits and shows to the center.

Dickinson arranged for the center to host Art(ists) on the Verge 9, an annual program produced by Northern Lights.mn that presents work by new Minnesota artists who produce work that incorporates new technologies.

Last month, she brought Somali-American artist Ifrah Mansour for a performance of her semi-autobiographical multimedia show, “How to Have Fun in a Civil War.” The show explores childhood memories and experiences from the 1991 Somali civil war through the eyes of a 7-year-old girl.

Austin said Dickinson’s experience and expertise will play a key role in providing ongoing, culturally relevant events and shows in the new year.

The art center will partner again with Mayo for another exhibit in 2019, he said. That show is still in planning stages.

The other strength the center will use is the facility itself. The location in the heart of the city, it’s view of downtown and position by the river offer an enticing location for multiple activities, Austin said.

“This building has a real presence,” he said.

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