Fridley's Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts serves as community center, gallery and artist support center.
It's a cold and snowy Minnesota morning, but inside Fridley's Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, it's cozy.
The air is filled with the scent of hot apple cider and the fragrance of homemade soap arrayed on one of several tables in the gallery. The center's annual holiday sale is underway, featuring, in addition to the soap, such hand-made craft and food items as salsas, textiles, pottery and paintings. The broad range of items on display reflects the equally broad mission of this unusual, county-funded arts center: part community center, part gallery, part support center for artists and writers. Wander in here on another day, and you'd be just as likely to find modern, conceptual art.
Or a writers' group discussing poetry. "If there's a main theme to what we do here, it's accessibility," said Lia Rivamonte, the center's executive director. "I know there are people living in this community who want to develop their art or their writing. Our programming supports them and helps them connect."
In addition to exhibits, classes and workshops, there are artist and writer residency programs, which include work space at the center and public exhibitions and performances. The center's reading series draws upon writers from the metro area.
The center's home is a two-story historic building that served as an inn and tavern more than 160 years ago along the north Mississippi. Later, the building and lands served as a farm until Anoka County purchased the homestead in the 1960s.
Today, the land is part of the chain of parks that flank the Mississippi River. The view from the gallery windows takes in a picnic gazebo, bridges and hiking trails along Rice Creek.
"People often wander in from the park," said Rivamonte. "They say, 'I never knew this was here!' "
The relationship with Anoka County also provides some security in a world in which arts funding appears to be dwindling. Rivamonte, a former actress at Minneapolis' Mixed Blood Theater who took on the directorship of Banfill-Locke a decade ago, points to the decision of the Jerome Foundation to reduce funding for individual artists as just one example of diminished arts funding.
Because the heat and other infrastructure costs are paid for by the county, Rivamonte's organization can focus its budget on supporting artists and providing free arts programs for their audiences.
And those audiences, she said, are growing.
"Ten years ago, it really felt rural," she said. Even today, "people think of Fridley and the northern suburbs, and they don't necessarily think of it as a haven for the arts. They think you can't do anything sophisticated in the 'burbs."
All the more reason, she insisted, to bring programming to those who do care for the arts.
"It can be a challenge, but it's really rewarding. We try to do things that are challenging and interesting. We don't pander to audience tastes."
Joe Hart is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer.