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One couple’s quest to start a small-town arts center

Four years ago, on a drive through tiny Meadowlands, Rollin Alm found the place where he wanted to retire. Only an artist like himself—someone whose job it is to create something out of nothing—could have imagined anything emerging from the ruins he spotted at the edge of town. Nearly half a city block—a store, a 1920s-era bank, and a Ford dealership—was for sale. Not that anyone expected the complex to sell before it fell. But Alm and his wife, Rebecca, bought the lot. They restored the upper level of the car dealership, moved in some furnishings, and filled the former showroom with easels and pottery wheels. But the Alms plan to do more than just grow old there: They’ve thrown open the doors, dubbed the place the Learning Room and Alm Studio, and begun holding classes in drawing and painting.

Meadowlands is nearly equidistant from Grand Rapids, Hibbing, and Duluth, which, depending on how you look at it, means this town of 120 people is either in the middle of everything or the middle of nowhere. Within the past 50 years, it’s been both. In the first half of the 20th century, its proximity to the region’s booming agriculture and mining centers made it a convenient crossroads—there were five grocery stores and as many gas stations. But when new highways were built, Meadowlands was bypassed. Today, residents believe the town is on the slow road to recovery. It has one bar, one general store that sells everything from groceries to horse feed, and a one-pump gas station (the attendant watches for customers from his home across the street).

The Alms, formerly of Minnetonka, hope their nascent art center will draw more attention to Meadowlands and add to the area’s quality of life. They envision turning the now-roofless store into a courtyard, bringing in ceramics and dance instructors, and perhaps housing resident artists. Rollin’s reputation as a maker of public art should help draw artists. As a fresco painter, he’s assisted on projects at the Cathedral of St. Paul, the University of St. Thomas, and a basilica in Italy. Recently, he created a mural for the new Pierre Bottineau Community Library in northeast Minneapolis.

But the Alms aren’t in any rush to transform the town. Rollin has a day job in Duluth, installing commercial flooring. And though the mayor of Meadowlands and other residents have eagerly joined the Learning Room’s board of directors, the Alms don’t want to seem like pushy outsiders. They’ve only been holding classes since last November and haven’t been aggressive in their marketing. Artists are just now coming out of the woodwork, or, more accurately, the woods.

On a recent night, two visitors drop in: one a regular who usually does her own thing, the other a retired physician and the only student in Rollin’s drawing class. As he dons the white lab coat that he uses as a painting smock, the doctor mentions that he used to rub shoulders with Jack Kerouac and other Beats in New York some 50 years ago. Rollin isn’t surprised. “These rural areas are scattered with national and eminent artists,” he says. “It’s not like it’s a primitive environment.”

The regular, Jackie, describes herself as living “five miles east and way back in the woods.” She’s working on a watercolor depicting her daughter with a couple of colts. “For me, art is a spiritual thing,” she says, “and Rollin has truly touched my spirit. We are blessed to have him here.”

The Alms have been inspired by John Davis, who hatched the idea of using the arts for economic development when he founded a similar center in the central Minnesota town of New York Mills. Davis says such projects require rethinking conventional arts marketing, which often targets an elite audience. “You have to have the mindset that everyone is the audience,” he says. “When that’s your philosophy, you start looking at people differently. You look at art differently, and you present it in ways that are accessible.” To Rollin, that means having an open mind about how people want to use—or not use—the Learning Room. It will always be the couple’s personal retreat. He hopes it will become their legacy, as well. “We’re building our Taj Mahal.”

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