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‘Driving change’ panel: In a good leader, no substitute for passion

“Art is very individualistic, but it’s so much easier when you have an aggregation of those creative individuals in one place,” says Jack Geller. “That can create synergy.”

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of the examples of leadership profiled in our series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today, Jack Geller of the University of Minnesota-Crookston comments on aspects of leadership presented in “The organizer: Millie Engisch-Morris cultivates a Brainerd arts scene.”

Jack Geller
Jack Geller

Jack Geller has spent enough time in rural areas, studying what makes them tick and what doesn’t, to understand the value of those quiet leaders who fly under the radar but nonetheless get things done.

It’s a trait he sees in Millie Engisch-Morris, profiled by MinnPost this month for her stewardship and promotion of the arts in the Brainerd lakes area. 

“It really helps if you have a passion for what you are doing,” said Geller, the head of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Department at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.

He added: “Being a dispassionate leader is hard. You can be a dispassionate boss, but not a dispassionate leader. Obviously, (Engisch-Morris) expresses that passion in the projects she is working on, and she is very entrepreneurial.”

Clearinghouse for local arts scene

As the artistic director of the Crossing Arts Alliance, a nonprofit group housed at the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd, Engisch-Morris raises money, organizes events and thinks about ways in which the arts can be expressed in her community. The alliance acts as a kind of clearinghouse for the local arts scene, generating grant money for artists and programs, hosting exhibits and workshops and putting a public face on a diverse and active arts community.

An official at the Five Wings Arts Council, a Staples organization that provides arts grants and services in central Minnesota, said Engisch-Morris was “at the top of the list” of people who are instrumental in promoting local arts.

“That really speaks to her reputation as someone who can get things done,” Geller said.  “Often times in rural places, the real leaders don’t hold fancy titles and positions. They are informal and non-positional leaders who nonetheless hold great influence.”

painted bull statue
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
A painted bull statue stands outside the corner entrance of the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.

Geller, a rural sociologist, has spent most of his career in small towns. He once taught at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D., and, for nearly a decade, led the Center for Rural Policy and Development, a think tank based in St. Peter. He has been a professor and administrator at Minnesota-Crookston since 2008.

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“Academically, I look at rural spaces as my lab, like a scientist looks at a petri dish,” he said. “People confuse that with being an advocate or a romantic about rural areas, but I am none of those things. What I am interested in is rural communities and how that works and how services are delivered.”

Arts as an important service

Even the arts can be thought of as an important service to communities, Geller said – one that can be particularly difficult to supply in rural areas without local champions. 

He has spent some time at a family cabin on Gull Lake near Nisswa and once visited the Franklin Arts Center, which he appreciated for its collection of talent. 

“Art is very individualistic, but it’s so much easier when you have an aggregation of those creative individuals in one place.  That can create synergy. In rural places – not like in a big city – you have to work at it. You have to orchestrate it. It doesn’t occur organically.”

Geller is a transplant to Minnesota, having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y.  So he was interested to learn that Engisch-Morris has traveled extensively around the world, drawing particular inspiration from the diversity of art and architecture in big cities. It has influenced the way she sees central Minnesota and the possibilities of arts expression in that region of the state. As she told MinnPost: “It’s always inspiring to go away somewhere, and when I come back I try to bring that (inspiration) with me and encourage our artists here to do more and to grow.”

“Good leaders really grab ideas from everywhere and import them back home, and she obviously is absorbing ideas – whether she’s in New York or St. Paul – and bringing them back to the Brainerd area,” Geller said.  “That is such a strong quality of good leaders.”

Engisch-Morris combines that deep curiosity about the world at large with a lifelong connection to Brainerd, where she graduated from high school, raised her family and continues to live. Geller sees the possibilities in that mix.

“It gives you a lot of credibility when have those kind of deep roots,” he said.