Big changes could be coming to the Edina Art Center, an institution as comfortable and low-key as the former house it calls home.

A consultant hired by the city is recommending that the center become more professional, market itself better and add a "friends" group to raise money. He also suggested that instead of focusing solely on visual arts, it add performing arts -- a move that would require a move to bigger quarters.

Those suggestions are unlikely to turn the center into a mega-complex like the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center. City leaders are wary of trying to build too much, as happened in Burnsville.

But at a recent meeting on the art center's future, consultant George Sutton of Sutton + Associates told the City Council and center board that the facility has the potential to expand and thrive even though it is surrounded by similar city-based arts groups.

"The amount of income you have, others envy," Sutton said. "The center has done a terrific job of building business over time. ... All in all, you have a pretty tidy operation here."

That upbeat assessment grew from a not-so-happy start, when the council began taking a closer look at city functions that are supposed to be self-supporting but require subsidies. The art center is one of those, receiving an annual subsidy that in 2010 totaled $221,000. That funding comes out of profits from Edina's municipal liquor stores.

Once a home, now a center

One idea that has been tossed around was to break off the center as an independent nonprofit, but Sutton's analysis concluded that would be risky. Arts fundraising is difficult now, he said at the meeting, and the change needed on the governing board -- members who are skilled fundraisers as well as wealthy enough to donate themselves -- would be traumatic for the organization.

Sutton suggested that instead the priority should be to appoint a permanent center director, professionalize staff and possibly create a separate nonprofit "friends" group that would concentrate on raising money.

Such changes could alter the character of the 35-year-old center, which is in a donated home that has been added onto twice. Michael Frey, who has been the center's interim director for a year and has taught and worked at the center for 15 years, said he knows change is needed but his biggest concern is losing the home-grown feeling that makes the center special.

"You walk into the old garage, and it's the reception area," he said. "The gallery is the former living room. A huge camp of people love that quality, while others feel it could be more professional. ...

"We have a lot of staff that started here 35 years ago. We know we need a staff that has a different skill set for the modern world, who know Twitter and Facebook and social media."

Southdale or Grandview?

Sutton told city officials that the center would be stronger with more professional full-time staff. He said the community would welcome an expansion into the performing arts.

"This community could be hungry for that, and it would enhance fundraising efforts," he said.

Expanding activities would not be possible in the center's current home, which is at capacity. While the city has explored the possibility of relocating the center to Southdale's third floor, Sutton advised against it. He said remodeling costs could be huge, foot traffic to the third floor is sparse and occupying private property with a city facility could create challenges.

"To me, that's a pretty big leap," he said. "How that could be successful is a puzzle to me."

Another possibility is relocating to the GrandView area, which the city is planning to redevelop. The old public works building is there, but that too would require major remodeling.

Though the center's current building is somewhat shabby compared to those of other municipal arts centers, Sutton said the it is actually performing better in supporting itself than are others. A strong lineup of classes means the center brings in $400,000 to $500,000 in earned income, which he said is high compared to other centers in the area.

Frey said he and the center board, which approved Sutton's report this week, are energized by the ideas in it.

"It's kind of like the stars are aligned for us, and this is the time to make changes," he said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan