WHITE BEAR LAKE — Suzi Hudson has spent almost two decades expanding artistic opportunities for people in and around White Bear Lake as executive director of the Center for the Arts.
She’s an artist by trade and at heart, however, and is eager to get back to pursuing creative endeavors of her own after she retires from her longtime role on Dec. 31.
“The work of the arts center has been pretty much my life these last 20 years, building the community,” Hudson said. “I always dreamt of having an arts center that, when I retired, I could participate in, where I could take classes and where I could continue to grow as an artist.”
Her artistic interests — namely, making fused-glass jewelry — are what sparked her initial involvement with the arts nonprofit when she and her husband, Erick, moved to White Bear Lake from San Diego in 1986. The organization sponsored an annual “Fair in the Fields” art show. There, she showed her creations and her husband displayed his handmade woodworking products.
Hudson later became a parent volunteer art teacher through a program the arts center sponsored. The program filled a gap in the elementary school where her son was a student after visual arts classes there were cut. During that time, she also worked as a co-owner of Lake Country Booksellers.
By the time the center was looking for a new executive director, Hudson had about 15 years of arts and business experience through her jobs in White Bear Lake and previous work at the San Diego Museum of Art. Her neighbor in White Bear Lake was board chair for the arts center at the time in 2004 and asked if Hudson was interested in applying for the top job. She was.
Her mission since then was to grow the number of ways for community members to engage in the arts and recognize their creative potential.
“We’re creative beings, and the more ways the art center could facilitate opportunities for people to be engaged in the arts — that was the biggest value I see in having a community art center,” she said.
The center built on audiences of people already engaged in two popular art mediums — watercolor painting and pottery — by adding classes such as writing, textiles and jewelry-making.
“We now offer over 1,000 different classes a year. The more we expanded how we defined arts, the more our participation grew,” Hudson said.
Under Hudson’s leadership, the Center for the Arts also renovated and moved into its existing home at 4971 Long Ave. in September 2013. Before that, the arts nonprofit only had one classroom and an office at the Armory. It also held classes at various spots around town.
Having an arts center was a “game changer” according to Hudson because it gave artists a fixed meeting spot where they could learn from each other and one that served people of all backgrounds and skill levels. She also pointed out the building is accessible to people with disabilities.
“If there’s anything that’s most important to me, it’s accessibility to the arts at a local level and that it welcomes everybody at whatever ability,” she said. “It really has nothing to do with how great an artist you are. It’s about breaking down the fear of engaging, and it’s about celebrating wherever an individual is on that continuum of their artistic journey.”
The arts center has experienced additional changes the past few years due to two coinciding developments: the coronavirus pandemic and a building expansion.
During its 18-month-long closure from the pandemic and renovation, the arts center emailed weekly art lessons for people to do at home and offered live, virtual art classes and prerecorded courses. It also put on a weekly, outdoor market for artists in fall 2020 to give the creators a chance to sell their work.
Groundbreaking for the building expansion happened in February 2021, and the center’s grand reopening took place the first weekend of that October. Hudson said the arts center had signed the building contracts at just the right time to avoid supply chain issues and material price hikes the pandemic caused.
The organization has occupied its newly renovated building for a little more than a year and is back to holding in-person events. Hudson also noted the arts center has seasoned staff and financially is “in a place that feels like recovery but also poised on the threshold of tremendous growth.”
Therefore, it felt like the right time for her to hand the reins of leadership to someone new. The center hasn’t yet named her successor, though there will be an interim director while the organization searches for a full-time hire.
Getting back to her artwork — as well as her passion for creative writing — isn’t the only aspect Hudson is excited about when it comes to her retirement. She’s also keen on spending more time with her family, which includes her husband, her two adult children, Tim and Hanna, her mother, who’s in her 80s, and her golden retriever, Winnie.
Hudson said Hanna has a 6-year-old daughter, too, and is expecting a second child.
“The day after I announced my retirement to the chair, our daughter told us that she was expecting, so it was like, ‘Oh, there’s a great sign from the universe.’”