ROCHESTER – The three-story, white-walled Rochester Art Center on the banks of the Zumbro River hasn't always been as polished as it looks. It nearly went under last year under the weight of mounting deficits, and laid off all but one of its 11 full-time employees.

But after some serious resuscitation, the center has landed in new hands.

Sheila Dickinson, a well known Twin Cities art historian and critic, was hired in September as artistic director while Brian Austin became executive director.

Austin doesn't have a background in arts management, but he does have a Ph.D. in sociology and cultural studies from the University of Texas and a plethora of marketing experience, including an eight-year stint at Best Buy and a visiting faculty position at the University of Northern Carolina. He landed in Rochester because his husband works at Mayo Clinic.

"My metaphors tend to be more medical," said Austin. "It was like coming into the ER and asking: 'Is this patient going to live?'

"Then 2017 was just getting them stable. Now they're stable, and we're actually running quite well. And then trying to get more ambulatory. But we are not at a point where we could race."

Financially, the bleeding hasn't stopped, but it has slowed. The center has trimmed its operating deficit over the past three years, from $279,099 in 2015 to $134,725 in 2017, and Austin said it is set to show a small surplus in 2018.

Both he and Dickinson had been involved with the center on a freelance or advisory basis, while Austin also served on its board. Together, they want to transform the RAC.

Naura Anderson, an employee at the center from 2006 to 2015, is hopeful for the new leadership.

"I am excited about the direction that the art center is heading," said Anderson, who now runs a new organization in Rochester called Threshold Arts, which offers studio space and materials for artists' professional development.

"As an institution that I dedicated years of my life and blood, sweat and tears to, when things were looking their darkest, I was genuinely sad to see an organization that meant so much to me struggling and potentially at risk of closing or taking a completely different direction."

Saved from the Soap Factory

One of Dickinson's first projects was bringing in Art(ists) on the Verge 9, an annual program produced by Northern that presents work by Minnesota-based artists using emerging technologies.

The show was supposed to be at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, but renovation work has delayed that organization's reopening until at least mid-2019. Dickinson rescued the exhibition, bringing it to a venue that was on the brink of death itself — a stroke of irony.

A couple standouts from the show include Ziyang Wu's immersive augmented-reality installation, which imagines hyper-surveillance in the futuristic fictional city of Los Jing (a combo of Los Angeles and Beijing).

Stephanie Lynn Rogers, a practicing Quaker, also addresses surveillance with a multi-part meditation. It includes a security blanket that can't be read by cameras; audio stories of people who have been watched and harassed by government operatives, and a strange PayPal-induced tracking experience she had after purchasing a special copper-coated fabric, which blocks electromagnetic fields, for the show.

There's much more to see, too. Last weekend, Somali-American artist Ifrah Mansour made a stop on her tour "How to Have Fun in a Civil War," an autobiographical multimedia piece that explores a 7-year-old girl's view of the conflict in her homeland.

It was supposed to be at a theater in Rochester, but when that was unexpectedly canceled, Dickinson stepped in.

"Everyone who works in that building was like 'What can I do?' " said Mansour. "We had Somali people come out who have lived in Rochester for 15 years and have never had a Somali artist in town. That brought tears to us. With the amount of struggle we had ... moments like that reassure you."

Dickinson is also working to rally local artists with a curatorial program called Rooted. The current show, "Traverse" by Katya Roberts, who studied art and sociology at UCLA, is a series of sculptures referencing landscape — small boulders, rivers, waterfalls, even a small house with water occupying the floor area. Many of the sculptural elements in the show are activated by a soundtrack composed by Chris Kostelec.

Elsewhere on the third floor, there are more stand-alone exhibits. Ben Moren creates the illusion of a river running through the gallery with his video sculptures, while Rochester-based artist Kyong Juhn re-imagined her parents' escape from North Korea — they walked 323 miles to South Korea — by walking from Rochester to Bemidji. She documented her strange journey through videos, maps and photographs with accompanying text. A gallery wall displays five flags: two U.S., one North Korean, one South Korean and a white flag with a single unified Korea, as if to envision the borders erased.

All of these exhibitions were organized by Dickinson.

"I think Sheila is doing great," said local artist Mary Beth Magyar, who had a solo show at RAC in 2016. "Having Ifrah Mansour in here is fantastic, and we need more of that. Sheila has much more of a community spirit behind her and understands that there needs to be lots of different kinds of contemporary art."

612-673-4437 • Twitter: @AliciaEler