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Rochester Art Center officials paint optimistic picture at annual meeting

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Rochester Art Center on Aug. 7, 2014.
Rochester Art Center on Aug. 7, 2014.
JPellgen | Creative Commons via Flickr 2014

In January, financial auditors said there's substantial doubt the Rochester Art Center could survive crippling financial difficulties. At the center's annual meeting last night, that gloomy scenario was nowhere in sight. 

"Lots of things are happening and I can ensure to everyone that we are here now and we are here to stay," said Brad Nuss, the center's board president. 

He was among the RAC officials who reassured the public that the center of Rochester's art scene isn't going anywhere.

The center's latest projections show budget surpluses of $50,000 and $131,000 this year and next. Those numbers reflect money saved from a recent round of layoffs.

The budget forecast was sparse on details about how to reach those numbers, but center officials said achieving surpluses would require reversing hefty budget deficits in recent years. The RAC lost nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the three years, ending in 2015.

Interim director Lee Koch says balancing the budget will require difficult decisions. 

"What we really have to do is increase revenue in some key areas, but to cut expenses for now so we don't have as much of a fight," Koch said.  

For instance, center leaders want to stage more "must-see" exhibits, but do so with a smaller staff, which Koch says will be a challenge. 

Fundraising is another challenge. Koch says foundations and corporate sponsors, which make up a significant chunk of the RAC's revenue, want to see the budget come into balance before they give more. But she says household donations are on the rise.

"The individual donors, believe it or not, are stepping up. But when it comes to foundation, organizations like the Minnesota State Arts Board have very strict guidelines," she said.

The RAC's financial meltdown has had ripple effect. Several of the five staff members who were recently laid off say the RAC is not paying them for earned time off, which Koch said was a decision based on the RAC's tight budget. 

And artists have been affected as well. 

Karl Unnasch is a southeast Minnesota sculptor who built Burnt Matchstick, a massive steel and stained glass sculpture that stands 40-feet tall at the front entrance of the RAC. 

The hope was that a donor would buy the piece for the museum, and a series of emails between former executive director Megan Johnston and Unnasch show that there were discussions to make that happen. 

But when Johnston left suddenly earlier this year, those efforts died. Now, Koch has told Unnasch he will have to de-install the sculpture himself — a job Unnasch says typically falls to the institution displaying his work. 

Unnasch said he felt misled about funding to buy his sculpture and that he could have spent the last year looking for another home for his piece.

"The communication from start to finish has been a test of patience," he said. "I made it a point to give the Rochester Art Center the benefit of the doubt repeatedly. I'm trying to help by offering up something that doesn't exist anywhere else."

As the RAC gets its fiscal house in order, there's a bright spot looming in 2018 — a national show that director Koch says is already fully funded. 

But she said it may take more than that to ensure the RAC's survival.