The Art of Legacy: An Introduction to the Anderson Center and Director Stephanie Rogers

 In Culture, Feature

To those unfamiliar with southeastern Minnesota, the Driftless region sounds a bit like the name of an Eastwood ghost town or Tolkien Hither Land—but in fact it boasts some of the most spectacular terrain in the country. Here, amidst bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River valley, reigns—or perhaps hides—the Anderson Center, a residency space and community arts center offering musical performances, poetry readings and local outreach year-round.

Under the new stewardship of Executive Director Stephanie Rogers, the center would seem more firmly rooted, more “driftless,” than ever. “It’s quieter here,” reflects Anderson, an introspective person who selects her words carefully. “In Minneapolis, the noise of the city was wearing on me. I’m not sure if anyone is ever able to fully tune that out. It’s important that rural communities have access to the level of talent that our residents bring in, but it’s also amazing to see artists from big cities have their jaws drop when they see that there’s a third floor to the house, a library on every floor. There’s just so much space.”

A Georgian Revival house on the National Register of Historic Places, the center is a majestic abode of antique furniture, painted ceilings and staircases that, well, just won’t quit. With only five people living and working in the space at a time, the residency is “intimate,” in Rogers’ words. “It’s very intentionally set up to have a sense of a cohort. Everyone comes in at the same time. A full month really gives the chance for the group to create deep bonds and the chance for people to get really into their projects and make major progress.”

Assuming the helm in early 2018 from poet Robert Hedin, who transformed the historic estate in the city of Red Wing into a residency in 1995, Rogers emphasizes the legacy she has graciously inherited. “His impact and vision are huge, and I have tremendous respect for the work that Robert and his wife, Carolyn, did,” she asserts. “It was a huge job, and he didn’t take a salary. He went to work for 20 years to support artists and the community.”

From the Anderson barn, a refulgent space appointed for events and readings, Rogers looks up to the rafters upon explaining the distinctive nature of her new home of 16,500 members. Having grown up in Chillicothe, Missouri, Rogers gravitated toward the small town. But an hour away from the Twin Cities, “it’s definitely not a suburb,” she emphasizes. “Part of why I wanted to be here is that most of my professional life has been working with really diverse communities and arts organizations in major metro areas, but my whole upbringing was in a much more rural environment. In 2015 and 2016, it became clear that there is a massive rural-urban divide in this country—how we think of each other in terms of class divisions, to say nothing of racial divisions, has received a lot of attention. I care a lot about both rural and urban communities, which puts me in a unique position here to make a difference.”

Attracting writers and visual artists from around the world for residencies, the Anderson Center proves cosmopolitan in scope but very anchored in its environs. “Pursuing my MFA on the East Coast,” Rogers reflects of her time studying photography at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, “one of the things that struck me is how the cross-pollination of ideas can happen in such a densely populated area. In the Midwest, that kind of access usually just isn’t possible. But I do think that in those urban environments you lose something as well. The psychological impact of being in nature and what that does for us as human beings is well documented. The Anderson Center is a lifeline in both ways for all sorts of people.”

Integrated into the Red Wing community, the organization’s residents each conduct an outreach program during their stay, interacting with citizens every season. “There’s a lot of talk about arts access, and there are definitely geographical barriers for small communities and towns,” Rogers says. “When I was a kid, I thought the Impressionists were the pinnacle of artistic achievement in high school because those were the only books in our local library. I was well into high school the first time I went to an art museum, despite the privilege I had being a middle-class person from a well-educated family. Just the fact that I have a career in this field is amazing.”

After running the Third Place Gallery in Minneapolis—a Chicago Avenue hub renowned for its collaborative artistic output—Rogers was well prepared for the directorial role at the Anderson Center four years later. “It became clear to me through running the gallery that I get as much joy and satisfaction in supporting other artists’ work, helping them find an audience and seeing them achieve their artistic goals, as I do with my own work. I don’t privilege one over the other.”

Rogers’ background across creative disciplines and professional sectors further contributed to her interest in the role—one demanding a plethora of practical know-how along with creative acumen. “Many people my age graduated college right before the recession was hitting,” she reflects. “I’ve been a professional house painter, a graphic designer. I have worked in a veterinary clinic, in for-profit, nonprofit and university settings. I’ve been an adjunct professor. I’ve done freelance project management work. I have been running my own business as an independent artist, as well as working with other small businesses with their websites, bookkeeping and big public-art projects. All of it adds up to having the skill set required to direct this type of nonprofit.”

A Missouri-Minnesota hybrid, Rogers spent half her early life north at summer camps in the North Woods, working there while in college at St. Olaf, not far from Red Wing. “Minnesotans have incredible public funding for the arts—more public funding per capita than any other state in the country. And private foundations—most notably, the Jerome Foundation, the Bush Foundation and the McKnight Foundation—contribute to that. I think most people would attribute this to the strong presence of Scandinavian immigrants in this region—that sense of civic responsibility, of giving back.”

Despite her 34 years, Rogers speaks of the original Anderson family—of Quaker Puffed cereal acclaim—as though they are friends with whom she regularly toasts at a local pub. Whether it’s the first female ambassador in the U.S. State Department or the founder of the first Red Wing hot lunch program, the Andersons were not the type of tony folk to hole up in the Hamptons. “These were people who had a sense that there’s a duty to give back. They were leaders in Red Wing. Living here, I meet a lot of people who remember them. When you realize how many major inventions and creative innovations have happened here, it gives one a sense of humility, but it is also motivating, for me, to live up to that standard.”

Rogers admits that it’s still too early to tell how directing the center has affected her own artistic output, but it is quite clear that she is making an impact on the town. While the center has long been known for its literary clout, she sees opportunities to expand support for the visual arts—including a printmaking space and a revamped dark room. This fall, a series of authors will visit and Rogers is working to include a Dakota writer or poet in the mix. “There is a Native American community within the city limits of Red Wing. Prairie Island Indian Community is part of the city. We know that representation matters here.”

A younger steward, though inarguably experienced, Rogers represents a seismic shift in arts leadership across the state. “All three arts organizations in Red Wing are now run by young women who are millennials or Gen Xers,” she shares. “Four years ago, they were all run by baby boomer men.”

For her part, she’d like to put the region more firmly on the national map. “Humility is valued in the Midwest, but especially in Minnesota,” she says. “The Anderson Center has very quietly been doing incredible things for 24 years. One of my goals is—to a little less quietly—invite more people in.”

Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Volume 18, Issue 2. The digital version is available now. You can also order a print copy or purchase a subscription online.

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