The Great Northern has picked as its new leader an artist whose work has anchored the winter festival: Jovan C. Speller Rebollar.

As executive director, Speller Rebollar will co-lead the nonprofit with Kate Nordstrum, who becomes chief programming officer.

Speller Rebollar is a photographer and multimedia artist based in rural Minnesota. For the 2022 festival, she created a piece called "Conservatory," an icy greenhouse wedged into a St. Paul alleyway.

But she's also an arts administrator: Since 2018, she's been a program director at the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.

Working with the Great Northern changed how Speller Rebollar views the winter, she said, helping her celebrate the people and practices that shape the season.

"I am not the most social person. And I did not used to like the cold," she said, laughing. "The festival was this shifting point in my life of being able to enjoy myself within the place I choose to call home.

"So I'm excited to give back and offer some of my skills to help carry the organization forward into bigger and better things."

Speller Rebollar, who starts May 15, will lead the business side of the organization — development, marketing, finance and operations. Nordstrum, who had been both executive and artistic director, will continue piloting the programming for the two-week festival, which includes art installations, concerts and climate change talks.

The hire, made after a national search, hints at the nonprofit's growth.

Nordstrum started in 2019 as the sole employee of the Great Northern, launched as an umbrella event for the St. Paul Winter Carnival, City of Lakes Loppet and U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. Speller Rebollar will become its fourth full-time employee. Its budget in fiscal year 2021, which includes Nordstrum's first full year as leader, was $356,000. That grew to $977,000 in fiscal year 2023.

Balancing the organization's growth with curatorial creativity was a challenge, Nordstrum said. "Jovan's hire will result in greater organizational momentum and stronger programmatic offerings in the years to come.

"I think we are going to be an incredible team."

A self-described radical homesteader and hobby permaculturist, Speller Rebollar tends to her family's land in Osage, Minn., near Park Rapids. During last year's fest, she gave a talk on transplanting Black food traditions. That event struck some of the same themes as "Conservatory," which she created with artist Andy DuCett, she said. "How do Black folks adapt and thrive within their environment?"

She will bring gardening practices and philosophies to her work with the Great Northern, she said. "My first duty will be to observe."

But she expects to focus on creating more awareness of the festival, making it a must-do.