This century-old building hasn’t been heated since 1974. The centuries-old paintings inside haven’t been restored in decades. But a new, neon sign hangs in the window of the Nemeth Art Center: ART, it says, glowing red.
“On an overcast day, you can see it from downtown,” says Michael Dagen, the center’s executive director.
Despite its tiny budget and rural location, the Nemeth is becoming one of Minnesota’s most vibrant contemporary art galleries and gathering spaces. “It’s not easy to keep an art center going,” Dagen says, “let alone an art center like this in rural Minnesota.” It’s doing it with the help of an unlikely collection of European paintings, ties to key contemporary artists and favors from friends with nearby cabins.
The center’s main gallery, marked by tall ceilings, was once the courtroom. Worn wood floors lighten where the bench once stood. It’s early May, but the air inside remains chilly. “I wear long underwear into June,” Dagen laughs.
He’s here to help hang the next show: Works by artists and partners Nathanael Flink and Julie Buffalohead, who’s coming off an acclaimed, self-titled solo exhibition at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis. “I don’t think a lot of people even know about the Nemeth, to be honest with you,” Buffalohead says. But that’s changing, she adds, “because of the artists that have been showing there.”
Buffalohead, whose drawings and paintings often feature humanlike animals, has been inspired by the gallery’s size and history. Two dramatic new paper collages in this exhibition reach 14 feet. “We’ve all wanted to take on this big space and figure out what we can do,” she says of artists who have shown in the space.
For six seasons, the Nemeth has focused on contemporary art, luring top artists thanks to board members like sculptor Aaron Spangler, who lives nearby. But it’s best known for its collection of European paintings spanning six centuries and the story of how they ended up here, three hours northwest of the Twin Cities.
That story starts with a fine-art restorer named Gabor Nemeth, who had a summer home in Two Inlets, a tiny township 15 miles outside of Park Rapids. In 1977, he and his wife decided to display their collection of dozens of paintings, dating back to the 1600s, in Park Rapids “before it becomes a permanent exhibition at St. John’s University,” the newspaper reported at the time.
More than 4,000 people showed up to see the artwork (thought then to be originals, but later shown to be mostly copies of old masterworks). The city’s population at that time was just 2,700.
The reception impressed Nemeth, whom Dagen called “a man of mystery.” St. John’s was waiting: “They are pushing me very hard,” Nemeth told the Park Rapids Enterprise. “They call me up every evening saying they are praying for me.” But he changed his mind.
A group of citizens, most of modest means, borrowed money to buy the collection for about $60,000. The county turned over the old, empty courthouse, saving it from demolition. And the North Country Museum of Art was born.
Last year, for its 40th anniversary, the art center took the European paintings out of storage, displaying them salon-style on the white, tall walls.
“It was really powerful to see it all together like that,” Dagen says. “Seeing them together as a whole, you couldn’t nitpick with whether ... a few need to be restored or had frames in poor shape.”
Those old paintings lean against one another in a small room off the main gallery, in a tall storage unit built by a staff member at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “He’s got a cabin up here, so he wanted to help us with this,” Dagen explains. He pulls out two of his favorite pieces: richly hued still life paintings by an unknown artist. One features a vase atop a pile of books, apples scattered beside them. The books’ titles reference witchcraft, Dagen pointed out, contrasting with the religious imagery of most of the collection.
If the painting were restored, you could see the scene delicately painted on the vase.
But first, the building — which is on the National Register of Historic Places — needs its own restoration. The roof is worn, its shingles curling. A black-and-white photo reveals a stately tower, removed long ago. Dagen would like to see it rebuilt. And then there’s an unfinished attic, with a stage-like structure that begs for live music.
Dagen, 41, has brought big ideas to this gig. He started the Wild Rice Festival in Park Rapids, a fall gathering of food, arts and activities. This summer, on the second Saturday of the month, the Nemeth will host performances, music, poetry and films.
“I’m trying to get people to become aware of this place again,” Dagen says. “For so many years, it was known for the old group of paintings. It’s the kind of collection you see once and then you don’t need to see again for five, 10 years.
“People want to see what’s next.”
Dagen was recruited by board member Spangler, whose work stands in the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and who lives not far from where he grew up. The two men met at Barter Fest, a kooky gathering of music and camping that Dagen organized in Hewitt, Minn., where attendees swapped pies, vegetables, instruments, books.
On a recent afternoon, they show off the center’s collection, which after 40 years, “has grown in interesting ways,” Dagen says.
Spangler grabs a ladder. He begins sorting through a stack of charcoal portraits of American Indian children, smiling in front of waterfalls, rivers, horses. “These were all kids that I grew up with,” he says.
Spangler, 47, remembers his family driving the 3 miles to town to visit the museum in the 1980s, when he was a child. His mother was on the board at one point, too, he says: “Everybody’s had their turn.” He recalls talking to the former director, looking up at the old paintings.
“Without it, what would I have had here? Nothing,” he says. “I probably didn’t appreciate it then. But it definitely gave a window into what could be.”