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ArtStart Celebrates 10 Years as It Looks to a More Inclusive and Community-Driven Future

Ten years ago, a small group of volunteers got together with a goal: create a space in the community to celebrate art.

Today, ArtStart is an integral part of the Northwoods community.

Sue Bessert is the ArtStart Board President and has been involved with the culture and community center from its start a decade ago.

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR
One of two gallery spaces at ArtStart. The exhibit 'A Pigeon Year' by John Martin Bell is currently on display.

“It really came down to the community saying yes to the arts,” said Bessert.

She said 10 years ago the Rhinelander community said they wanted more riverfront development and arts as the area looked toward strategic planning.

When the government announced it was going to sell the Federal Building at the corner of Stevens and King Streets, Bessert and a small, dedicated group thought it’d be the perfect fit.

“We said, ‘Oh my goodness this would be the perfect opportunity for public space for the arts,’” she said. “So much has gone out of downtown, but to now retain and bring back something and activate this building with the community so people come from wherever they live in town in outskirts, or suburbs or another town, come downtown because there’s cool things going on downtown.”

The City of Rhinelander bought the building from the federal government for one dollar and thus ArtStart was born.

The group converted the space with the goal to make it a place for visual art exhibitions with a vision that people in the Northwoods didn’t have to go to big cities to experience art.

“We took a bold move and I think that was part of our success,” said Bessert.

In the years since, ArtStart has expanded, not just in space but in the community.

It’s been focusing on expanding its outdoors space into an ArtPark, it offers different art programs for children and adults, and it collaborates with community partners for things like Project North and In Progress. It should be noted that WXPR is one of ArtStart’s community partners.

“ArtStart does so much. It’s hard to just to put it all and describe it in a box,” said Ashley McLaughlin, Program and Operations Director.

McLaughlin joined ArtStart four years ago.

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR
Pieces from the exhibit 'Ceramic Memes, 2020' by Ash Kyrie are currently on display at ArtStart.

“This is probably the exciting part of an organization is when it just starts, to when it hits the growth stage and the mature stage in an organization,” said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin said now the ArtStart has established itself in the community and in the region, it can let itself grow in different ways.  

It’s important to her for ArtStart to be an inclusive place that can challenge and support people.

“ArtStart is about expression. It’s about inclusion. It’s about meeting everybody where they’re at and appreciating them for that and helping build others up. It’s about having fun together and doing things that are necessary and needed and using art as a vehicle to do that,” she said.

McLaughlin believes art is more important than ever with the all issues, or opportunities as she calls them, that the world faces.

“Art just reminds us to take a breath sometimes when we’re feeling overwhelmed and charge forward, that anything is possible,” McLaughlin said.

It’s McLaughlin’s hope that community members will use the art to drive meaningful conversations and make the Rhinelander and the Northwoods a better place. That’s the vision she has for the future of ArtStart.

“ArtStart has far exceeded probably what the founders of ArtStart thought of within the first ten years. Rapid change, rapid growth, but definitely a necessary part of our community,” she said.

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR
Carmyn Tiffany performs on the outdoor stage at the ArtPark. ArtStart is currently focusing on expanding and building up the ArtPark.

It’s certainly exceeded Sue Bessert’s expectations.

“Personally, I did not have all that visioning,” Bessert said.

But she’s loved watching ArtStart grow these past 10 years into what it is now, and she can’t wait to see what the future holds.

“We have a lot of work to do yet, but we’re in a great process,” she said. “We had a good start and, boy, I think we have a great future too.”

Both Bessert and McLaughlin encourage anyone who has never been to ArtStart to come to the open gallery or one of their programs.

ArtStart is inviting the community to celebrate its 10-year anniversary with its ‘Party on the Street’ Saturday.

It goes from 5:00 to 9:30 and is free and open to the public.

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