AITKIN -- The Jaques Art Center is forging ahead with a full slate of exhibits and activities, despite the sudden and unexpected resignation of its executive director this fall.
A major exhibit of religious art -- drawn from Lutheran Brotherhood's permanent collection -- opens Jan. 9, followed by a show of works by the center's namesake, Francis Lee Jaques, an internationally famous wildlife artist with Aitkin roots.
The University of Minnesota's Bell Museum will provide the pieces for the Jaques exhibit, which runs Jan. 28-May 13 in the downtown Aitkin art center. The artist died in the 1960s after a long and successful career as a studio artist and magazine illustrator in New York City.
"The future for the center is bright, and because a lot of my life is geared toward children, I hope to attract that age group with workshops and special activities. The younger you get them the better off you are." -- Leslie Hanlon Jaques Art Center executive director
Several other exhibits are scheduled from February to July, including the ever-popular Student Art Show, coordinated each year by the center and area public schools for a late-April opening.
Owned and operated by Friends of the Jaques, a nonprofit organization, the center apparently has weathered the most recent change at its administrative helm, the fifth in as many years.
Lori Esler, the center's director since October 1997, resigned in August to take a teacher's aide position in the special education department at Cuyuna Range Elementary School in Crosby.
"Kids are my first love," Esler said this week in an interview, "and I had limited access to kids at the art center.
"It was a happy departure, although I think the Jaques' board members were sad about my leaving," she added. "I was happy there and it was a challenging job, but I left to return to my first love and I know I'm in the right place now."
Esler, a longtime Aitkin resident, worked as a teacher's aide and school secretary at Rippleside Elementary School in Aitkin for 16 years before taking the center's director position. She was the fourth director since the center opened in July 1996.
During her tenure, the center gained a strong foothold in the community's cultural life, she said, offering several major exhibits each year.
But Esler is reluctant to take credit for the center's progress -- the annual budget has doubled from $20,000 to $40,000 in recent years -- saying "the center is run by a strong group of board members ... the true art people."
Ironically, Esler resigned following the close of the center's most successful exhibit, "Our Mother Earth: A Tribute to Ojibwe Artists," which attracted hundreds of viewers during its monthlong stay.
The exhibit, which features works by George Morrison, can still be seen as a "virtual tour" on the center's Web site, www.jaquesart.com.
"I think we have accomplished a lot when it comes to creating the groundwork between the center and the community," Esler said. "My biggest hurdle was getting local people to take an interest in the center."
The board, headed by Celia Doty, organized a search for Esler's successor shortly after her departure, eventually hiring Leslie Hanlon for the 20-hour-per-week position.
Cherie Holm, a native who divides her time between her Twin Cities home and her Aitkin farm, stepped down from the board to take the role as "interim director," an unpaid position charged with training Hanlon to run the center.
Natives of Minnesota, Hanlon and her husband, John, a pharmacist, moved last year from Detroit to Aitkin. A stay-at-home mother of an infant son, she was available for the part-time position, she said this week.
"The center is just now taking hold in the community, that the center is not a fly by night kind of thing," she said. "The future for the center is bright, and because a lot of my life is geared toward children, I hope to attract that age group with workshops and special activities.
"The younger you get them the better off you are," she added.
In the meantime, Holm and Hanlon are concentrating on raising funds to make the center more accommodating for people with disabilities, including installation of an elevator and appropriate bathroom facilities, Holm said this week.
"The mission of the Jaques is foremost as we work from day to day," Holm said. "Running the center is a complex task, and yes, the arts are essential to having an art center.
"But the business of running the building, staff, exhibitions and fund-raisers requires skills that are usually separate from those of artists," she said. "I happen to have been blessed with a combination of talents that include being a mediocre artist and a business person with a special zest for the arts."
Holm and her husband, Jerald, operate an electrical service company in the Twin Cities. Jerald Holm serves as vice president of the Jaques board.
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