The Rochester Art Center has laid off curator/artistic director Sheila Dickinson, a well-known Twin Cities art critic and historian.

"COVID has taken a toll on pretty much every organization, especially in the arts, and we had increased our curatorial staff last year before knowing what 2020 would hold," said the center's new executive director, Pamela Hugdahl. "The numbers weren't making sense when fall came around, so we had to start thinking strategically."

The center suffered a shortfall of nearly $220,000 during the fiscal year ended June 30, as revenue and public funding shrank to $596,000 — less than half of what it took in during the preceding 18-month financial period.

Dickinson started at the center as a guest curator in 2016. She became a full-time staffer in 2017, then curator/artistic director in September 2018 as the art center hit the reset button after several years of financial difficulties.

Hugdahl is the center's sixth executive director since 2008. When she started in June, personnel expenses had jumped with two new staff members and increased custodial duties from the pandemic. Given the drop in income, that put her in a difficult position, she said.

"We are really regretting having to make this change," said Hugdahl, "but one of the silver linings is that it will enable us to diversify our exhibitions and bring in a wider range of curatorial views."

She said the center will not fill the post. "I don't see it as a sustainable model. We are not the Walker Art Center."

While Dickinson blames COVID in part for the change, she was disappointed. "They believe it is superfluous for the art center to have an artistic director," said Dickinson. "What's it going to look like when you don't have that role?"

Still, she said, the art center "has suffered a lot of controversy. I'm trying to keep the drama out of it."

Artist Zoe Cinel, hired in August 2019 as associate curator, has been promoted to curator. Originally from Florence, Italy, she graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design with an MFA in 2018.

The 2021 schedule includes a range of traveling and solo exhibitions. In mid-March, Hugdahl is bringing in "We Are Water," a traveling exhibition organized by the Minnesota Humanities Center.

Another traveling exhibit — "Home of Memories," portraits of Iraqi Minnesotans by Iraqi Minnesotan photographers — will open in May. It is curated by CarryOn Homes, a collective that includes Cinel and created an installation for the 2020 Minneapolis Institute of Art show "When Home Won't Let You Stay."

Ryan Fontaine and Kristin Van Loon, of Hair & Nails Gallery in Minneapolis, will curate a summer exhibition with the working title "The Human Scale."

The art center's Rooted program, a space for showcasing southeastern Minnesota artists, will open exhibits by landscape painter Joy Blewett and mixed-media fiber artists Jennifer Jesseph in March.

Despite the pandemic, the center has four exhibitions on view, including portraits of Rochester essential workers and "Mercy to Mankind," a solo show by Somali American artist Ayub HajiOmar.

On Saturday, the center celebrates its 75th anniversary with a virtual fundraiser.

"Getting back to 2018 payroll numbers is where we need to be aiming," said Hugdahl. "Even though we are in this beautiful, big building, we are a grassroots arts organization."

@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437