As long as the arts in White Bear Lake were confined to a space in the armory, Sue Ahlcrona recalls, they might almost have not been there at all.

"People didn't know we even existed," she said. "If you look at the catalogs we had then, they were just the front and back of a sheet of paper. Today our catalog is a work of art itself" — and it's 34 pages thick.

After years of effort, the board of the White Bear Center for the Arts managed to wrap up work on a $3.5 million, 10,000-square-foot building in 2013.

It's one of just a handful of suburban art centers across the Twin Cities, and even rarer in being a stand-alone operation, not city-owned, as Edina's and Bloomington's are.

Enough time has passed now to see what having one's own home means. And it has proved to mean a great deal, said executive director Suzi Hudson.

"Last year alone we saw a nearly 50 percent increase in class registration," she said, "and it's still growing. Memberships are up a little over 30 percent, to just over 800 households, which equates to about 1,500 individuals."

Room of one's own

Back in the day, board member Ahlcrona said, gallery space meant a partnership with Century College, using what was essentially a lobby. Now, having one's own gallery right on site is a big deal.

"Normally hidden behind a pedestal in a gallery space are large sinks. We have been able, with that flexibility, to have a visiting artist exhibit watercolors, then have that person offer a weeklong watercolor workshop centered on his own work, and there's now an un-hidden 'wet classroom' right there for the students," Ahlcrona said.

Pottery classes are another huge difference.

"In the armory we had one classroom serving every purpose, so we were limited to two clay classes a week; we didn't have enough room to store the work.

"Today, we have eight to 10 classes a week, with a separate kiln room, all the kilns are in a different area from the work space. We're getting a whole new caliber of artists involved, and the work produced by students is phenomenal," Ahlcrona said.

With little competition close by, said board chairwoman Mary Gove, the reach of the center goes far beyond White Bear Lake itself.

"We have at least 42 ZIP codes represented among our members," she said, notably in Washington County.

Half a century

The most remarkable teaching relationship, many agree, centers on painting instructor Frank Zeller.

He taught in local schools for 32 years, though he's been retired now for another 20. Zeller has taught in various venues, including adult ed and a private gallery.

"One student in class reminded me the other day that the two of us as student and teacher go back 50 years," Zeller said. "I have a whole group that's been with me at least 15 to 20 years. My class is standing-room-only and closed to enrollment; they wait in line. It's beyond me!

"I don't think it's me, basically, it's just a relationship, as one would have with an exercise teacher, that goes on and on. It's a course that runs all year and people can drop out and drop back in, but they find that dropping back in doesn't happen very easily because someone else will take their place.

"One time I noticed that certain people weren't turning up for quite some time. I found out that there were people going south in the winter, but still paying to keep their place! I guess they can afford it."

Right on the lake?

An arts council, operating on a shoestring, has existed in the city for decades. As time went on, a number of options arose for more permanence and space, including a site right on White Bear Lake.

But that would have been 3,000 square feet, not 10,000, and would have been new construction rising at least a pair of stories with a costly elevator, Hudson said.

The center landed in a building converted and expanded from a driving school and photo studio, several blocks off the lake but in a setting with natural serenity, she said.

"This place has a beautiful connection to nature, with five acres of city-owned wetlands next door — secured for the public so that it will never be developed, and giving us a beautiful sense of retreat. And it's all on one level, and since it was in foreclosure, bank-owned, we got incredible value for the deal."

The permanent gathering space that came with the new building is proving to be key in meaning more to the northeast metro, Gove said.

"Community involvement has risen dramatically," said Gove, a former art teacher. "A lot of people even right in town didn't realize we even existed; now all the community events are making us more of a community center than just two rooms where people go to paint. Our last two events involved dancing, flamenco, and a poet. That's because there's space to congregate."