The growl of heavy construction machinery has been raising a racket outside the front door of the Rochester Art Center for a few months now.
But Megan Johnston’s ears are tuned to something else.
“There’s a buzz in this city and we should take advantage of it,” she said.
Johnston, the new director of the art center, was referring to the Destination Medical Center project and the city’s anticipated growth, as well as the Mayo Civic Center expansion project responsible for that construction site outside the art center.
Johnston started her new job Oct. 1, replacing former director Shannon Fitzgerald, who left for a position in Orlando, Fla.
She arrives at a time when the art center is struggling for visibility and access in the face of the huge civic center project. A paved walkway leads to the art center’s door from partially blockaded Civic Center Drive. You really have to want to get there to find your way to the art center, and not all wedding parties and other renters have shown such resolve.
“We have seen a slight drop in sales and numbers,” Johnston said. “We’re not in the business of rentals for weddings, although we have an amazing space for that. Our main business is connecting art with people. Yes, the construction has hurt that a little bit.”
On the other hand, she said, the lull gives Johnston and her staff an opportunity to plan for the future. “It’s really giving us some space to regroup,” she said. “I am a servant. All of us in nonprofits serve. I think this is a time for us to focus on who we serve.”
Johnston, a Stillwater native with a cheerful, outgoing way about her, comes to Rochester with 20 years of experience in arts and museums. She recently completed her doctorate degree at the School of Art, Design & the Built Environment at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland. While doing that, she was director and curator of The Model art center in Sligo, Ireland.
She also has been a lecturer at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design and held positions at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, N.D., the LaGrange Art Museum in LaGrange, Ga., and for six years at the Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown, Northern Ireland.
After all of that, what interested her about Rochester?
“Home!” she said. After being abroad for several years, Johnston said, she longed to return to Minnesota with her husband and two sons. Plus, she said, “The Rochester Art Center has a reputation of having very strong programs. It has a great track record. I think I can really make a difference here.”
Eventually, she said, the construction site adjacent to the art center will go away.
“The physical barriers are nothing compared to the conceptual barriers the art center faces,” she said. “That’s the first kind of barrier we need to address. That’s not uncommon for art centers, particularly in contemporary art.”
Contemporary art, which the Rochester Art Center exhibits, can strike visitors as confrontational, confusing, even unfathomable. At the very least, audiences are afraid they might not “get” it.
“Contemporary art is sometimes hard to get,” Johnston said. “That’s why it takes such hard work, day in and day out, to connect with people. A lot of people here know about the art center, but there is not a feeling that they have a connection to it.”
To solve that, Johnston advocates “avenues of entry” — lectures, family days, tours, youth programs and other events — to give people more reasons than strictly the current exhibitions, to pay a visit. She also wants to launch joint ventures with other local arts organizations.
“The aim,” she said, “is to make this place rooted locally but recognized globally.”