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Published November 30 2013

Forum editorial: Rourke Gallery closing justified

There is no denying that the loss of James O’Rourke, who died in 2011, meant the loss of a vital driving force in the area’s visual arts community. His name, in abbreviated form, has lived on through the Rourke Art Museum, which occupies the old Moorhead Post Office, and Rourke Art Gallery, which resided in one of Moorhead’s grand old homes.

Many arts lovers now are understandably mourning O’Rourke’s passing once again in light of the recent announcement by the museum’s board that the Rourke Gallery will close and the house will be sold at auction Dec. 17. The board concluded that the organization could no longer sustain two locations, especially in light of very sparse attendance at the gallery. Major upgrade costs loomed for the house, built in 1882, after years of deferred maintenance.

“We have a responsibility,” said Tania Blanich, director of the Rourke Art Museum. “We need to be good stewards, and it doesn’t make sense to have two venues.” Operating two sites requires additional staffing, utilities, maintenance and upkeep. The gallery is not compliant with handicapped-accessibility laws.

The decision has sparked criticism and even outrage from some friends of the museum, who say it is an affront to O’Rourke’s legacy. The hyperventilated reaction from John Rowell, a former member of the Rourke’s board of directors, was a rhetorical depiction of the famous Edvard Munch painting “The Scream.” He said, with a flourish worthy of the impressionistic masters, that the decision amounted to “cultural vandalism.”

It’s true, as Rowell pointed out, that O’Rourke was able to run the organization in two buildings for 15 years. Running his namesake gallery and museum was O’Rourke’s passion, a labor of love. He didn’t charge an administration fee, and was only compensated for his expenses. Board members and others familiar with the operation knew that it would be very difficult – or impossible – to sustain both locations once O’Rourke was gone. Sadly, that prediction was accurate.

We understand that the gallery, O’Rourke’s former home and the location of special events he hosted there, holds special significance for many. But critics overlook certain unpleasant facts. Attendance at the gallery was down to a trickle. In fact, when the gallery was closed in June for maintenance, the museum received no complaints until the decision to close the gallery recently made the news.

The decision, however painful, was justified. The time has come to say goodbye to an old friend. We hope a preservation-minded buyer will step forward at the auction to continue the legacy of Ole Martinson, who built the home, and James O’Rourke. The Rourke Art Museum, now on a more sound financial footing, keeps his memory and mission alive for generations to come.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.