On September 26, Franconia Sculpture Park, near Taylors Falls, opens its long-awaited Franconia Commons. The new space includes a gallery, café, gift shop, and flexible space for events and educational programs.
The two-building complex is made up of new construction as well as an old farmhouse donated by long-time supporters the Cowles family.
“In the nicest way, I call it the Winchester Mystery House,” says Ginger Shulick Porcella, Franconia’s executive director and chief curator. “In terms of aesthetics, it’s sort of like a park-visitor-center-meets-rural-farmhouse, but with a contemporary twist.”
The new complex also has an outdoor space created by current Franconia fellow Tom Bierlein, a graduate of Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Shulick Porcella was impressed with Bierlein’s designs for a sculpture in the park as part his fellowship, especially in the ways he was thinking about the intersection of art and ecology. She decided to commission the Minneapolis-based artist to create an outdoor gathering space, which, like the new complex, will have flexibility to be reconfigured depending on the event.
“We just wanted to keep it flexible and keep it fun, but also be more in tune with the landscape here,” she says, noting the outdoor space will be a kind of land art piece in itself. “He’s actually using a lot of the materials that we have here on site at Franconia. We’re repurposing old telephone poles and railroad ties and fallen trees that are at the park.”
Minnesota Monthly chatted with Shulick Porcella about what she’s been up to during her first year in her role, and her plans for the little art park on the prairie.
It’s been almost a year now since you joined Franconia, how things are going?
Everything is going good. I feel really lucky to not be in a museum anymore, but actually be in a space that’s open.
How much have you had to do in terms of mitigating for COVID-19 with your programming?
It’s definitely impacted our residency program. We postponed our spring residency until next year, and we only have two artists in residence right now. We had to cancel our summer camps. Normally in April, May, June, and July, we would have had tons of school groups and field trips and workshops every day, and that hasn’t happened, either. But aside from that, we’ve been incredibly busy. We’ve actually seen about triple the amount of people here the last four months. We’ve been able to do a lot more than most places. We’ve had monthly farmers markets that we started this year, we’re doing outdoor film screenings for the first time this year. I think people are really appreciative to just have stuff to go to.
What drew you to work at Franconia?
Honestly, I was a little disenchanted with museums and how they actually impact and serve diverse communities. I wanted to go to a place that was free. For me, going to a contemporary art space in rural America in this particular political climate is very appealing.
How do you want to make your mark with the park?
I’m such a behind-the-scenes person. Coming out of the museum world, there’s a lot of ego to it, but I really don’t have that. There’s a lot that can be done here. Not major changes, but little things add up to an overall different experience for visitors. For example, some people who come here may not really have an understanding of art, but they come because it’s outside and they’re having an experience in nature. Programming around that intersection of art and ecology was something that I really wanted to focus on, and is really our primary focus for this year.
We are in early discussions to start a fellowship program specifically for Indigenous artists. That’s something that I think is much needed and can be really successful in Minnesota.
And, moving away from the historic idea of big art. I know that Franconia was built on the notion of big art, but I think sculpture as a medium has evolved so much since the park was founded. I think that we needed to evolve with it. We are expanding what we do beyond traditional sculpture to land art, to performance, to social practice, so that it’s a much more diverse experience and understanding that what sculpture as a medium can be.
This year, we’re also launching fellowships for writers, because we have the space. In the wintertime, we typically don’t have fellows here, so just thinking about how we can better utilize this space and make it active throughout the year. Especially as a curator, I’ve always lamented the fact that there aren’t as many curatorial residencies in the United States as there are in Europe and Asia. So to have a space where curators or writers or poets, musicians, art critics, or anyone can come, especially in the wintertime. It’s a very quiet sort of isolating experience, but really great for someone who just wants that solitude to write.
What was it like to start working as Franconia was in the midst of a capital project?
The [Commons Project] was supposed to open up two years ago. It’s had its challenges, but there’s a lot of potential for this building to serve the community year-round. Indoor space is something that we’ve needed very much for a long time, particularly studio space for artists.
I think we’re also just excited about the earned income potential for having a space where we can have a gift shop to highlight local artists, and have a gallery where we can showcase the work of artists both that work at Franconia and from all over the world and have that work in dialogue together.
We’re starting a free membership program, which we’ve never had before. It’s a way for us to learn more about who is coming, why they’re coming, where they’re coming from, what they like to see, and just to be able to talk to them more. It’s really hard to do that now without having a more directed experience through the park. There’s a lot of potential to have a gathering space where people can have a cup of coffee, learn about what we do, and sit down to plan their day through the park.
Why did the Commons get delayed?
No one wants to give money to an organization’s capital project that doesn’t have a director. It was put on hold for a year and a half until I came here and picked the project back up. It was my top priority to finish it because it’s been in the works for five years. I’m sure a lot of our donors who have supported the project really want to see this building open. I didn’t want it to look like a failed capital project, because it’s not. It took a lot longer than we anticipated, but it gave us the time to be more thoughtful about what the space could, and should, be.
There were not originally plans for a gallery in there, and the multi-purpose space was envisioned originally just as a space for kids to make art. I wanted to make sure it was a flexible space where we could have workshops, music, performance art, lectures, and artist studios. I wanted to have a small cafe. I like the idea of a Commons and how art and civic life can come together in a meaningful way. I really do envision it as a space not just for us, but for the community as a whole to experience and enjoy together.
What will Franconia Commons look like?
Part of it is a new construction, and part of the building was moved here. The Cowles family—who have been big supporters of the park since the beginning—it was one of their family houses that was actually relocated here. The old farmhouse is linked to the new addition with a hallway that connects the gallery and the education space and the bathrooms. I’m excited that we will have bigger offices. Right now we’re all in a shared office, which during COVID, doesn’t really make sense. I think everyone who comes here will be super excited that we’ll have really nice bathrooms. It kind of looks like a farmhouse from the outside, but more contemporary on the inside.
And what about the outdoor seating area designed by Franconia fellow Tom Bierlien?
We sort lovingly call it “Camp Franconia.” It sort of has a campground feel, but again, like a more contemporary and flexible space. For example, tables double as chairs, and it can be reconfigured depending on different groups or events that happen there. I didn’t want something typical, I wanted it to be different than a museum courtyard space, I wanted it to feel very authentic to Franconia.
For more on what to expect when you go, check out this guide: Take a Day Trip to Franconia Sculpture Park.
29836 St. Croix Trail N., Shafer
8 a.m.-8 p.m.