Picture perfect

Although the Ramsey Center for the Arts’ primarily operates within Ramsey County and even though the nonprofit group, like the county, is named after Minnesota’s first territorial governor Alexander Ramsey, Director Robert Meyer stresses that his group does not restrict itself with county lines.

“We have taken that name because we represent territory and that can be very broad, even international,” he said.

So, despite currently residing in Shoreview and keeping affiliations with the Ramsey County cities of Arden Hills, Vadnais Heights and Roseville, the Ramsey Center for the Arts (RCFA) is planning to expand its reach to neighboring Washington County by taking up residence at a new location in downtown Lake Elmo.

Pending the finalization of details with city staff, the mainly volunteer-powered organization is expecting to move much of its offices and operations to 3585 Laverne Ave. The city-owned house on the corner of Lion’s Park in the Old Village is often referred to as the Siedow house after its one-time occupant, former City Council member Chuck Siedow, from whom the city acquired the property when he moved his family to Wisconsin in the spring of 2004.

Acting upon the recommendation of the City Council from a committee meeting earlier in the month, Meyer made a small presentation at the June 21 council meeting and received unanimous approval to begin negotiations with City Administrator Martin Rafferty. The aim of those discussions would be to relocate the Ramsey Center for the Arts’ main office to Lake Elmo and potentially utilize the Siedow house as space for a gallery, performances or any other art-related activities.

“I’ve had a positive meeting with them and they’re proceeding ahead with planning,” Rafferty said last week. “I would say all things are looking positive for them to create a location here in Lake Elmo.”

For Meyer and his three-year-old group, that will mean a change of venue, but not a change of mission. Currently headquartered in the Shoreview Village Mall, the Ramsey Center for the Arts employs its “humble” means, according to Meyer, to bring traditional visual art, music, dance, printed works and theater to the Twin Cities.

“We are a nonprofit organization that cooperates with area arts organizations to make arts available to the community,” reads the mission statement on the groups Web site. “RCFA is simultaneously a community center, a culture center, a resource and education center, and a center for the arts.”

Recently recognized by the McKnight Foundation as one of the top art centers in the region, the group tries to attract local artists and art groups for showings, performances or educational opportunities in a variety of locations. Meyer hopes a Lake Elmo connection will only serve to increase their draw.

“The more space you have, the more you have to offer,” he said. “Our spaces can be humble, (but) we’ve developed sufficient stature that word does get around in the art community about us.”

Most recently, the RCFA booked some dance performances for the city of Roseville’s Rosefest celebration this past weekend and the group’s influence has been felt in cities throughout Ramsey County. Meyer noted his organization’s international and cultural components as well, citing past exhibits of Cambodian art, Native American art and its current show of art created by Russian orphans, sponsored by Maria’s Children International and on display at City Hall in Arden Hills.

Framing a partnership

The RCFA first came to Rafferty’s attention almost two months ago when Mayor Dean Johnston recommended the council consider the group’s proposal. Meyer is already involved in the Rotary Club, another group that has recently initiated a Lake Elmo chapter, and he soon realized the potential of the Siedow property.

The house at 3585 Laverne Ave., with roughly 1,500 square feet of lower level space and about a story-and-a-half of height, has been used for a variety of events in the past. Recently, it served as home base for the highly successful book drive sponsored by the Friends of Lake Elmo Library in March.

Rafferty said the city “identified several public purposes” when it acquired the property, with the most significant being the possible relocation of the house and extension of the Lion’s Park baseball field in the future. It was considered in the discussions to construct a new city hall and public works facility near Lion’s Park that fell through following neighbors’ dissent last November.

Although Rafferty said the relocation of the house is still a possibility in the future, there is no reason why those potential plans should interfere with the proposal to bring Meyer’s group into the city for now.

“(We) recognize the value that such an organization could bring to the residents and young people of Lake Elmo,” Rafferty said. “Any time you can foster art, creative writing or theatrical performance, I believe that’s an integral part of a community.”

Even though both the city and the RCFA want the partnership to work, zoning and structural issues must be resolved first. For example, the question was raised at the June 21 City Council meeting as to how the building would meet state wheelchair accessibility requirements. Meyer acknowledges that such renovations can cost more money than his group has available and expects some fundraising projects may arise in the near future.

Until then, however, he remains optimistic that the Ramsey Center for the Arts will have a presence in Lake Elmo to some degree, hopefully offering gallery visits and utilizing the front lawn for community art fairs and other art events.

And even though Meyer continues to keep a broad perspective for his organization when it comes to art sources, he agrees that the support the visual and performing arts receive in the Twin Cities is a rare phenomenon.

“There are moves every year at the Legislature to remove funding from the arts and they manage to still hold their position relatively well,” Meyer said. “Which is reflective of the appreciation of the community for the arts. ...

“They add to the quality of life in Minnesota.”

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