Watermark Art Center and Bemidji State University (BSU) have partnered to help make historically significant pieces of art accessible to the community on a permanent basis. When Watermark is fully remodeled at the new 505 Bemidji Avenue location, visitors will have the chance to view pieces by world-class ceramicists such as Peter Voulkos, or prints by acclaimed artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
“This partnership is an amazing opportunity for the region,” said Watermark’s executive director, Lori Forshee-Donnay. “It has paved the way to show work by renowned 19th and 20th century artists here in Bemidji. Residents and visitors will be able to see the kind of work that they would normally have to drive to major metropolitan areas to view.”
The idea of working together began with an unexpected phone call in 2012. Word was spreading regarding Watermark’s plans for a new art center and BSU Provost Martin Tadlock saw potential for an alliance. He contacted Forshee-Donnay. “I just reached out to her and said, ‘I’m interested in what you’re doing,’” Tadlock explained.
At that point, just what a collaboration would look like was unclear. Tadlock wasn’t seeking a specific arrangement, but rather an opportunity to more fully engage with area residents. “BSU is a regional comprehensive university, which means we have a directive that calls for this type of outreach,” he said. “Our primary mission includes developing partnerships and providing opportunities for our students through meaningful involvement with the surrounding community.”
A meeting was arranged between Watermark personnel and university representatives, including professors and administrators. “We had already worked closely with the university over the years,” said Forshee-Donnay. “Especially through our It’s Only Clay national juried competition.”
BSU is the primary sponsor for It’s Only Clay and each year provides purchase awards to add pieces from the show to the BSU ceramics teaching collection. This is one of two collections housed in BSU’s department of Technology, Art and Design.
Thanks to discerning selections made by the original owners, these collections contain work from very high profile artists. The Margaret H. Harlow Ceramics Collection includes pieces created by Peter Voulkos, Lucy Rie, Warren MacKenzie, and Maria Martinez. The Lillie M. Kleven Print Collection features numbered prints from Gustave Baumann, Mary Cassat, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; plus reproductions from Daumier, Goya, and Holgarth. The collections include over 500 pieces each, the worth of some reaching well into tens of thousands of dollars.
How did this art find a home at Bemidji State? The original owners of each collection, Harlow and Kleven, were alumnae of BSU. Both women collected art from around the world throughout extensive military careers during and post-WWII. They continued collecting into their retirement and, in the 1970s, decided to honor their alma mater by donating what they had spent so many decades acquiring.
Beyond use as teaching pieces, BSU occasionally displays these works in their campus gallery. However, the large size of the collections and the use of the BSU gallery for other exhibits limited the exposure of the valuable pieces. “We were familiar with the Harlow collection from It’s Only Clay,” Forshee-Donnay said. “But many people in the community haven’t seen it and don’t even realize such work is in their backyard.”
Forshee-Donnay suggested that the university could have a gallery space in Watermark’s new center to help give the art greater visibility. After several months of planning, it was decided that BSU would rent a 700 square foot gallery space in the new Watermark center specifically to show both their Harlow and Kleven collections on a rotating basis. “We want visitors get as expansive an experience as possible when they come to Watermark,” said Forshee-Donnay. “And the sheer number of works available in these collections allows for an infinite combination of exhibits!”
This partnership is a great opportunity for both parties. It will provide Watermark with exceptional art to showcase, as well as rental income. It gives BSU greater visibility in the area and provides new educational opportunities, including potential internships for students to work as curators and docents.
“I’m hoping this will help push our students out into the community more,” said Tadlock. “We want to be an example for that. If we just sat here within the four walls of our university, our students wouldn’t be prepared to go out themselves and make a difference.”
Such a community-centered goal mirrors Watermark’s own, whose mission includes participating in regional partnerships to help enhance northern Minnesota’s quality of life. Through this partnership with BSU, as well as other opportunities that arise, this vision will continue to shape the center’s future endeavors.