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Watermark Art Center celebrates 5th anniversary

This week, Watermark celebrates its fifth anniversary in this fine arts facility at 505 Bemidji Avenue North, a dream that started with an enthusiastic group of lovers of the arts in 1967. Fifty-five years later, the center is a focal point for the arts, serving not just the Bemidji area, but the nine counties and three tribal nations that surround it and the many visitors to the area from across the state and beyond.

Watermark Art Center
The Watermark Art Center, located at 505 Bemidji Avenue North, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this week.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — On Dec. 2, 2017, the Watermark Art Center in Bemidji celebrated its grand opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The celebration marked more than just the opening of a new facility; it was the beginning of a spacious, well-designed home that would serve the organization, the community and greater Minnesota in a way that had been the dream of Watermark patrons and members for a very long time.

This week, Watermark celebrates its fifth anniversary in this fine arts facility at 505 Bemidji Avenue North, a dream that started with an enthusiastic group of lovers of the arts in 1967.

Fifty-five years later, the center is a focal point for the arts, serving not just the Bemidji area, but the nine counties and three tribal nations that surround it and the many visitors to the area from across the state and beyond.

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Lori Forshee-Donnay, executive director of the Watermark Art Center, wipes away a tear as she speaks to the crowd at the grand opening of the art center on Dec. 2, 2017, in Bemidji.
Pioneer file photo

The history of Watermark is one of passion for the arts. Their stated mission is “to nurture, exhibit and promote the visual arts.”

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It’s been a long road to get to where the organization is today, but in the past 10 years, under the leadership of Executive Director Lori Forshee-Donnay and with a large number of dedicated volunteers and staff, the Watermark Art Center has taken off in ways it could never have done without the facility.

Although its mission mentions only visual arts, the center has hosted not only exhibits, but presentations, author reads, concerts, numerous workshops and more.

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The Battle River Singers perform during the grand opening of the Watermark Art Center on Dec. 2, 2017, in Bemidji.
Pioneer file photo

Creating the center

The path to the Watermark Art Center began in 1967 with the Community Arts Council. Their charter members included Barbara Colliton, Ed Colliton, Albin Dahl, Helen Gill, Marie Luoma, Louis Marchand, Jr., Anna Parades, Carl Seeman, Ellen Thomas, and Vern Thomas. The council supported and promoted arts of all kinds and worked to make arts events happen in the area. The organization first received nonprofit status in 1970.

In 1980, another arts group formed and worked with the city of Bemidji to rent the recently vacated Carnegie Library. In 1981 a ribbon-cutting ceremony launched the organization’s first art center.

In 1982, the two organizations merged and eventually became known as the Bemidji Community Art Center. Today, Watermark serves Beltrami, Becker, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard, Itasca, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen and Roseau Counties and Leech Lake, White Earth and Red Lake Nations.

The Carnegie building served as home to the BCAC for over three and a half decades, but its limited space for exhibits and programming and lack of access and parking, along with an ongoing threat to have the building demolished, made it less than ideal as a permanent home.

Fortunately, the answer to Watermark’s prayers was just across the street in a building originally constructed as Hartz (later Lueken’s) grocery store.

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With the help of a USDA loan, the BCAC purchased the property. Extensive remodeling started with a groundbreaking in April 2017. When Watermark opened in December 2017, it featured four galleries, a sizeable education room and a gift shop.

Forshee-Donnay said the usable space for exhibits and programming had grown from about 4,000 square feet at the Carnegie to about 10,000 at the new center.

The name “Watermark” was chosen for the new art center — its meaning and the inclusion of “water” in the name are both significant to the organization’s mission and vision.

A watermark is a “translucent design … used in printmaking and other art applications,” often used “as an indicator of authenticity on paper currency.”

Additionally, “water” in the name, Forshee-Donnay explained, also reflects the importance of the water, the lakes, the rivers in northern Minnesota and the significance of water “on our culture and consciousness.”

The word “mark” also reflects the act of drawing or painting. “The new name,” she added, “is reflective of both the visual arts and our northern Minnesota environment.”

Galleries galore

One of Watermark's most unique features is its largest exhibit and gathering space: the Marley and Sandy Kaul Gallery, which fills the entire east side of the Center with a wall of windows facing Bemidji Avenue, is named after well-known local Bemidji artists.

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Artist Marley Kaul and poet Geri Wilimek share stories from their book "For Now" at a reading and exhibit at First Lutheran Church. Kaul died in August 2021 after a lengthy illness with pulmonary fibrosis.
Contributed photo

It is, as board member Lisa Bruns describes, “A window to the street,” allowing gallery visitors a view of Lake Bemidji and Library Park, where the 1967 group started Art in the Park, and of the previous Arts Center — the Carnegie — which was saved and restored through the efforts of a several-years-long Friends of the Carnegie campaign.

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While once there were supermarket windows, covered in signs and glass chalk to advertise grocery specials, gallery visitors can also see the world outside, but windows go both ways. Watermark’s east-facing windows also provide glimpses of the art inside.

In addition to the Kaul Gallery, the Lakeview Gallery — as its name implies — gives a view through the windows.

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Watermark's Lakeview Gallery, as its name implies, gives visitors a wide view of Lake Bemidji and Library Park through its large windows.
Contributed

A third gallery, the Bemidji State University Harlow/Kleven Gallery is rented by the university for its ever-changing display of ceramics, prints and other works in its extensive collection.

When BSU cut its visual and theater arts programs in 2010-11, Forshee-Donnay said there were fears that Watermark would suffer greatly.

“We would not have survived the loss of the BSU arts programs,” she said, “had it not been for such strong community commitment to music, theater, and visual arts.”

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Children work on art pieces during a painting workshop in the Watermark education room.
Contributed

With BSU’s presence in the Harlow/Kleven Gallery, the partnership between the university and Watermark is growing once again.

Forshee-Donnay is particularly proud of the Miikanan gallery, dedicated to perpetuating Ojibwe culture and providing art opportunities that promote traditional and contemporary works of Indigenous artists through exhibits and educational events. 

It features Native American arts exhibits from local to regional and even international. “Miikanan” means “many paths,” reflecting both the location and historical importance of the region to Ojibwe people. Sandy Kaul, a member of the organizing committee and former board member, refers to the gallery as “a gem in Minnesota.” 

Adapting for success

Three of Watermark’s five years have felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, stalling exhibits or causing them to be postponed, closing the facility from March to July in 2020, and driving the organization to find new ways of exhibiting art and providing arts education.

Two ways Watermark continued to get art into the public were take-home art projects and online exhibit presentations. The “windows to the street” provided views of some of the exhibits, even though doors were closed.

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Though Watermark Art Center has had to shut its doors during the coronavirus shutdown, leaders there still hosted virtual galleries, online art classes and more throughout the pandemic.
Pioneer file photo

As Watermark begins its sixth year, the organization continues to change out exhibits regularly (some are month-long, others four months), the spacious education room has resumed programming and visitors are returning.

This year, Art in the Park was rebranded as the Watermark Arts Festival, with the expansion of the event into the green spaces to the north and south of the center.

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Bemidji's Art in the Park event was rebranded in 2022 as the Watermark Art Festival, featuring local art vendors, food and music.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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An info booth staffed with Watermark employees and volunteers greets attendees as they enter Bemidji's Watermark Art Festival on July 17, 2022, at Library Park.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Celebrating 5 years

Watermark’s five-year anniversary celebration on Dec. 3 will welcome visitors and thank patrons as the organization moves forward with plans for expanded programs and outreach.

The public is invited to an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. with presentations at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3, at Watermark.

“Time has gone by so quickly," Forshee-Donnay said. "We are really excited to be able to celebrate with everyone who has supported us along the way and look forward to saying thank you, in person!”

Attendees can enjoy refreshments and music during the open house and sign up for a chance to win one of five art prizes. Visitors will also receive a commemorative ornament, created and donated by Chris and Kelly Keenan, while supplies last. The event is free and open to the public.

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