Art center plans new facility in Bemidji

Lori Forshee-Donnay
Watermark Art Center Executive Director Lori Forshee-Donnay.
John Enger | MPR News 2014 file

The east side of Bemidji Avenue's 500 block was never much to look at.

There were two derelict houses, a Masonic Lodge with bursting pipes and broken windows, and a former grocery store painted brown. It marked the end of Bemidji's downtown — the place where shoppers and tourists stopped walking and returned to their cars.

By the end of next summer, it will look a lot different.

"You're going to see an inviting green space," said Watermark Art Center Executive Director Lori Forshee-Donnay, "You're going to see something bright and vibrant."

This week, Forshee-Donnay announced official plans to rebuild the former Lueken's Grocery Store into gallery space and community classrooms.

In recent years, the homes and Masonic lodge were bulldozed to make way for green space. That space and the renovated building will expand the busier section of Bemidji's downtown.

"It'll be the front porch of downtown," she said. "A place where people can spend some time and look at art. Who doesn't like to have a front porch?"

The new facility represents a major expansion for Watermark. The center had operated out of an old Carnegie library across the street since the mid-80s. They had only a few thousand square feet. It was enough for a single gallery, but not much more. Forshee-Donnay said it was too small to serve Bemidji's growing art scene.

The new center is 10,000 square feet. She plans to have dedicated galleries for Native American art and teaching collections from Bemidji State University, as well as classrooms and cooking space.

The renovation project will break ground this fall and be completed sometime next summer, at a cost of about $3 million. Watermark already raised nearly $2 million in grants and private donations, and just launched a public capital campaign to get the rest.

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