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Former Rourke director calls auction 'cultural vandalism'

MOORHEAD – One of Moorhead’s oldest cultural landmarks and one of the city’s oldest houses is going on the auction block, but some supporters aren’t buying the decision to sell.

The building that until recently housed the Rourke Art Gallery at 523 4th St. S. will be auctioned off Dec. 17.

Members of the Rourke Art Museum Gallery were notified of the sale through a letter mailed Tuesday.

“It is our collective responsibility as friends and supporters of the Rourke to embrace opportunities that ensure its legacy and promise – and strengthen its future,” the letter stated. “That means facing difficult facts: supporting two locations dilutes our resources and creates multiple challenges to our goal to be good stewards of the artwork entrusted to our care.”

The letter was signed by Tania Blanich, director of the Rourke Art Museum.

James O’Rourke opened the Rourke Art Gallery in 1961 in the house Ole Martinson built in 1882. The Rourke expanded into the old Moorhead post office and Plains Art Museum, 521 Main Ave., in 1996, and continued programming at both sites until he died in 2011.

“This was a long-considered decision. It was absolutely not undertaken lightly,” Blanich said. “Really, the board was very careful in its consideration. We have a responsibility. We need to be good stewards, and it doesn’t make sense to have two venues.”

Blanich said proceeds from the gallery sale would go toward paying down the debt from the museum’s new roof and climate-controlled storage unit designed to safely hold the museum’s collection of about 4,000 pieces of art.

Keeping two sites open requires additional staffing, utilities, maintenance and upkeep. The gallery building would need work to be compliant with accessibility laws.

The gallery closed its doors for the summer, but never reopened. Blanich said attendance at the gallery was minimal outside of opening receptions, the last being Greg Montreuil’s in late April, the third opening of the year.

Shutting the doors for good does not sit well with former board member and interim director John Rowell, who said he was “scunnered” when he read the letter.

“It seems to me that this is a calculated act of cultural vandalism,” Rowell said Thursday, calling the gallery “the heart and soul of visual arts in our community for 50 years.”

“It seems really wrong for a board of directors who, without so much as holding a public meeting to lay out the reasons for it and to solicit reactions, but just announce it. Just seems completely wrong,” he said.

Rowell was a 14-year member of the Rourke’s board of directors until January, when he resigned due to personality differences. After O’Rourke’s death, he served as interim director for 10 months until Blanich started in early 2012.

“For a period of 15 years, from 1996 until Jim’s death in 2011, he ran the organization in two buildings,” Rowell said, adding that the gallery held between eight and 10 exhibitions a year. “It worked for him. He did it with a smaller staff than they have now. Why all of the sudden is it not possible to do what Jim did for 15 years? It makes no sense.”

“I do understand the grief that comes with this kind of transition,” Blanich said. “It really wasn’t an easy decision for anyone to make. It’s the right thing for the organization to do if we are to continue to be that cultural institution that has served Fargo-Moorhead for more than 50 years. Change is always very hard for people. This is an operational decision.”

Some fear the consolidation will cut into programing because it allows less space for shows.

Painter Jonathan Rutter worked for the Rourke on and off from 2002 until 2011. He had his first solo show in the gallery in 2008 and his most recent exhibit earlier this year. He called the decision to sell the gallery “a tragic situation.”

“This is really bad news for Moorhead in a way,” Rutter said, citing recent columns and editorials encouraging the city to embrace the arts. “The arts are a major part of developing a community and guess what, Moorhead doesn’t have a gallery anymore.”

Blanich said the recent addition of two galleries on the second floor of the museum creates more show space without needing to staff a second building

Brad Bachmeier president of the Rourke’s board of directors, said the mission and programming won’t change, but if the gallery isn’t sold, something will have to give.

“In the long term, it’s just not viable,” he said. “In the short term, it’s not like doors are going to close tomorrow, but the writing is on the wall.”

Bachmeier knows the walls well. He had his first solo show at the gallery in 2000 and one every year after, making it all the more painful to vote for the sale.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision,” he said. “Frankly, if it weren’t for the sentimentality of it, the business sense of it would’ve meant the place would be up for sale much sooner. There’s this sentimentality that everyone has, this loyalty to Jim. It’s personal. You connect Jim with the space. That certainly is difficult.”

Auctioneer Kevin Pifer, who is in charge of selling the gallery, said it was difficult to estimate what the property may go for because it could attract bidders looking at it for home or commercial use.

The 2,994-square-foot building sits on two lots, a total of 21,750 square feet. The entire property has a total value of $93,500, according to Moorhead’s property information site.

“It’s one of those unique, historic properties,” Pifer said.

The bidding will be held inside the house. He says there will be enough room for about 40 bidders.

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