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Conroy finds a home as new PRCA executive director

By Marshall Hoffman

For the Sun Tribune

After serving as interim director for the past year, the Board of Directors of the Prairie Renaissance Cultural Alliance recently named Julia Conroy as its executive director.

Conroy said she was "just happy to be here" as head of the Morris-based arts organization. "I plan to work hard and do a good job."

Conroy will take over the helm from Athena Kildegaard, who wrote the original grant to the Blandin Foundation to start the PRCA, which opened in 2002 in rented space on Atlantic Avenue.

"We can attribute the PRCA to Athena," Conroy said. "She made it into what it is today."

And what it is today is a central exhibit space for some 60 area artists to display their works. Before 2002, noted Conroy, local artists had to go to towns like Willmar, Sauk Centre or Battle Lake to exhibit. "Now that we're here, the artists are very happy," she said.

Conroy's mother, Della Conroy of Hancock, is a noted watercolor artist with several landscape scenes for sale at the PRCA. Della also teaches at the PRCA's annual Prairie Camp, an arts-focused day camp for kids held in June.

Her father John Conroy is the third generation of well drillers with Conroy Well Drilling of Hancock, a company that's been drilling wells for half a century in the area. Her brother marks the fourth generation of well drillers.

Conroy grew up with an appreciation for the arts and culture. She called herself a beginning potter and quiltmaker, and she plays piano. She graduated from Hancock High School and earned a degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota, Morris. She worked for 10 years in Minneapolis with the elderly in the social services industry.

"I miss my family of friends and all the opportunities that are available there (in Minneapolis)," said Conroy. "But the beauty of the prairie, I didn't appreciate before ... and the way of the people I didn't appreciate in my younger years."

One day she looked up at the stars and asked herself, "How could I want to be anywhere else?"

"I'm so happy to be back for the people who ultimately raised me and made me who I am today," said Conroy, who participated in PRCA activities during her frequent visits home. The Hancock resident said she lives with a calico cat and an "unruly" Bassett hound.

As for her plans as director, Conroy wants to add more workshops at the PRCA. Involvement with the Prairie Camp will not change, and new artists will be exhibited every six weeks. Currently an exhibit on artistic furniture by Morris artist Ray Strand is on display.

"People are amazed by the creativity of the people in this area," said Conroy of those who walk into the gallery. "The first thing people say is 'Wow!' The second thing they say is 'Where did all this creativity come from?' "

Popular items for sale in the gallery include pottery, photography, handmade jewelry, candles and glassware, as well as pastels, watercolors and homemade rugs. Conroy said the PRCA has become a "hot spot" for wedding, graduation and Christmas gifts.

"It's only so often that people will splurge on themselves," she said.

But, as with any art gallery that needs to pay a monthly rent, "so much depends on people's willingness to buy art." And in this time of economic slowdown, sales are down this year, she said.

But Conroy is staying positive.

"We're continuing to live out the mission of the PRCA by promoting the arts, heritage and culture in Stevens County," she said.

The PRCA relies on memberships of community members and donations of area businesses.

"Without people supporting the arts and culture in this community, we would never have the PRCA," Conroy said. "So we can really thank them."

She noted there is a diverse group of people who support the PRCA, including those in the university community and retired farmers who do art as a hobby.

"My greatest joy," she said, "is to work with all the volunteers who volunteer here. Every day there is a new volunteer."

The rising cost of gasoline has had its effect on the volunteer corps, however. Many volunteers from outside the Morris area have cut down to helping out once a month.

With a steady stream of community volunteers, over 60 artists, and 16 board members, Conroy only half-jokingly noted that "it takes an army to run a place like this. I'm just the coordinator of these ideas."

Besides store sales, the PRCA also raises funds through a spring and fall membership drive, a silent art auction in November and an Adair, Della and Friends concert at 7 p.m. Sept. 4 at the Morris Elementary Concert Hall, with all proceeds donated to the PRCA.