Pao Houa Her's photographs have been shown at the Walker Art Center, Paris Photo and the Whitney Biennial in New York.

After that? Park Rapids, Minn., pop. 4,100.

On a Friday evening in May, Her talked with folks about the portraits of Hmong American veterans hanging from the walls of the Nemeth Art Center in north central Minnesota, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. She ended up here because, months ago, sculptor and Nemeth board member Aaron Spangler, who lives nearby, gave her a call. "I have a crazy idea," Her remembers him saying.

The two didn't know each other. But they knew one another's work. And she knew the Nemeth's reputation.

"The center is amazing," she said. "They've had so many really wonderful shows. Dana Schutz, Alec Soth — really important American artists."

For a dozen years, the little nonprofit Nemeth has been exhibiting contemporary artists, some early in their careers, some collected by major museums. Recently, the art center has teamed up with the Carolyn Glasoe Bailey Foundation in Ojai, Calif., connecting Midwestern artists to the wider art world.

The center's new executive director, Mark Weiler, has visions of creating "cultural collisions," of appealing "to both the townie and the traveler."

But for Spangler, 51, the place's mission is personal: "The audience is us when we were kids," he said.

An acclaimed artist whose work stands in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Spangler grew up here. "I used to get dragged to the Nemeth," he said. To a rural kid, the place was a gift, "but it was always the same stuff right on the wall."

He was more inspired, as a teenager in the late '80s, by meeting his friend Bruce Brummitt, a Vietnam War veteran who along with other hippies was living off the land in an off-grid house he built by hand. Still is. That's where Spangler learned to build, learned to think.

"That community was my way out," Spangler said. "It really, for me, opened my mind."

He and chef and cookbook author Amy Thielen, his wife, started their careers in New York City before returning full time in 2009 to the cabin Spangler constructed — and later expanded — on 150 acres of woodland in tiny Two Inlets, about 15 miles outside of Park Rapids.

The Nemeth sits in the second story of what was once an old downtown courthouse. The nonprofit was formed in the late 1970s after a group of citizens, most of modest means, borrowed money to buy the 16th- and 17th-century paintings collected by fine art restorer Gabor Nemeth, who had a summer home nearby.

They're no masterworks, the Nemeth notes, but were made by those who studied under masters.

"It has a history, but it was kind of in a lull when we moved back," Thielen said. "Let's show contemporary work. Put those old works away, because everybody at that point had seen them."

Spangler joined the board and starting calling friends.

'They want the story'

Minutes before the May reception, Weiler was stuffing a binder with the show's catalog. A board member arrived with crackers. Another loaded a Polaroid camera with film.

The Nemeth is small and seasonal, with a budget of $107,000 in 2022. So board members make it work, running art programs for teens in addition to putting on summer shows.

Spangler and Weiler hauled and hung Her's photographs, as well as works by Mary Ann Papanek-Miller, also on view.

"It is a jewel," said Anna Arnar, a professor of art history at Minnesota State University Moorhead, who biked down for the reception. "They bring quality shows that are well curated, well installed."

That's partly because of Spangler: "Aaron, of course, is a force of nature." She also credits Minnesota's arts funding: "Could this exist in the middle of Nebraska?"

Nemeth's leaders are learning that this rural spot, surrounded by lakes and woods, is part of the draw. While in town, artists have stayed with Spangler and Thielen, or at an artist friend's place nearby, enjoying meals cooked outdoors by Thielen, a James Beard Award-winner. For years, Thielen provided hospitality informally; now she's on the board.

This summer, the Nemeth teamed up with the Carolyn Glasoe Bailey Foundation to present an exhibition of 17 artists at the Ojai Institute in Ojai, Calif. All had shown — or were about to — at the Nemeth. Among them are many Minnesotans, including painter Julie Buffalohead and ceramicist Ginny Sims.

The foundation honors Glasoe Bailey, who started her first gallery at 19 in her hometown of Minneapolis and died at 46 after battling glioblastoma brain cancer. She believed that "Minnesota artists needed to be recognized outside of the state before collectors, mainly other Minnesotans, would pay attention to their careers," according to the foundation. So she co-founded a gallery in the Chelsea art district in New York City, where she sold work for Spangler and some of his friends.

The two centers, in rural idyllic locations, both function as intergenerational and societal connectors, said Frederick Janka, the foundation's executive director. "We also share a passion for the decentralization of the art world that re-centers the rural, the regional, as a site for artistic development and of the future.

"Oh, also the food!" he continued.

Each year, the foundation brings a group of supporters and collectors to spend time in Park Rapids and visit galleries and museums in Minneapolis. "We are blessed with the culinary talent that is Amy Thielen and the warm and gracious host Aaron who welcomes everyone to the table."

The Ojai show with Nemeth, on view through July 30, will fund an artist residency exchange that's in the works.

West Coast artists are interested in experiencing the winter, Spangler said, an increasingly rare phenomenon as the world warms.

"They want the story," Weiler said. "They want to catch a muskie."

'For my friend Bruce'

All roads seem to lead back to Spangler.

The Nemeth's current show features Brad Kahlhamer, a Brooklyn-based multimedia artist who had an opening in Spain before settling in for a monthlong residency in Park Rapids. Years ago in New York, he and Spangler played in a band together.

Her's exhibition, too, is wrapped up in Spangler's relationship with Brummitt, who inspired a trio of Spangler's basswood sculptures shown at the Walker in 2011. (Spangler called one "Government Whore" after a song Brummitt wrote.) When Spangler first saw Her's portraits, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2015, he said, "I wanted to bring that show here for my friend Bruce."

A mix of family, friends and fellow artists stopped by the reception in May. A baby in a carrier. A puppy on a leash. Spangler's parents were there, too.

Brummitt got close to the photographs, looking up.

In the formally posed, large-scale portraits, Hmong American men wear uniforms and military fatigues, some with medals and ribbons — "all things they went out and bought for themselves," Her said. The men served in the Vietnam War, but the United States doesn't recognize that service.

Brummitt had served as a liaison in Vietnam, often working with Hmong soldiers, he told Her. He decried the U.S. government for failing to recognize them. "I'm so proud to have known some of these men," he said, "and I'm so honored that it's being shown on Memorial Day."

"Thank you so much," Her said.

"Thank you," Brummitt replied.

Then he went to the back of the gallery and gave Spangler a hug.