It Wasn’t Always Like This: Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Center For Creativity

Written by: Marisa Jackels

Photos courtesy of Plains Art Museum

If you’re new to Fargo, there’s something you should know: It wasn’t always like this. We take for granted the bustling city center that Downtown has become—filled with trendy restaurants, farmers markets and charming buildings—but not all that long ago, the landscape was quite different.

In partnership with our friends at Tellwell and Kilbourne Group, we’ll be telling the story of Downtown’s transformation in a series focused on the pivotal projects and historic renovations that paved the way for what the area has now become.


Katherine Burgum Center for Creativity
Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Center for Creativity

Glance through the tall windows of the brick building at 717 1st Ave. N, and you might see kids sculpting hamburgers out of clay. Or adults painting with watercolor. Or, if it’s after-school hours, one of the artists-in-residence creating a new masterpiece.

This is the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Center for Creativity, a community studio space designed for learning, discussion and display of creative work. Thousands of students of all ages create art within these walls every year, but it wasn’t always this way.

The vision for the center began at the intersection of two needs in the community with one common goal: creating a space for hands-on art.

Katherine Burgum Center for Creativity

The first need was from Fargo Public Schools, which, at the time, had a thriving program called Creative Arts Studio. The intention of the program was to give elementary students a more robust, hands-on art experience through working with professional artists, and it was a huge success—so much so that they were outgrowing their basement space and needed somewhere to grow.

At the same time, the Plains Art Museum in Downtown Fargo was also facing challenges with their campaign to expand. Their original dream was to own all of the property surrounding the museum, with each portion serving a different purpose, including affordable housing for local artists. However, it soon became clear that, with the resources available, they would need to re-imagine that vision.

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“We had to think about what the most important part was,” says Michael Olsen, board chair of Plains Art Museum at the time. “What was the center of this dream? We believed the most important thing was to fulfill the promise to our community, a promise of helping our youth become part of an arts movement.”

A conversation started between the two organizations, and they quickly realized they were at similar crossroads.

“We were looking for a new home for our vision at the same time the Plains Art Museum had a vision for a similar program,” says Rick Buresh, former superintendent of Fargo Public Schools.

A new dream was born: a vision to create a local center for creativity where kids and adults could have interactive, artistic experiences. Together, they would be able to provide a place for kids to get hands-on art education while also allowing the community to be more involved with the Plains Art Museum.

Katherine Burgum Center for Creativity

“It was a no-brainer when the proposal for the Center for Creativity came up,” Olsen says. “It was a way to grow art and art supporters within our community.”

The Plains Art Museum was already raising money for a campaign to expand their presence in the art community, but to bring it to the next level, the Center for Creativity would need a community effort.

The family of current North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum had recently established a fund in honor of their mother, Katherine. Katherine Burgum, or “K” as friends and family knew her, was a long-time advocate for the arts community.

“She was someone who had a love for beauty,” says K’s grandson, James Burgum. “She saw beauty in the world and thought, ‘How can we have more of that?’”

Katherine Burgum Center for Creativity

Katherine Kilbourne Burgum

At the time, the Burgums were looking to invest in a place that would be true to her spirit. As a place built on a vision to infuse the community with arts and education, the Center for Creativity seemed to have her name all over it.

“And now it literally does have her name all over it,” Olsen says.”

In her honor, the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Trust contributed $300,000 toward the project, with an additional $200,000 challenge grant from the Burgum family. The community met the challenge and matched with nearly $230,000, donated from community members, businesses and foundations.

Together, combined with funds already raised, they were able to meet the more than $6 million goal to finish construction, free of debt.

The project involved rehabilitating more than 25,000 square feet of space adjacent to the Plains Art Museum and turning it into an interactive studio space. The center is connected to the Plains Art Museum via the 50-foot-long Bradley J. Burgum Skybridge bridge, the late son and brother of K and Gov. Burgum, respectively.

Katherine Burgum Center for Creativity

Bradley was also a strong art advocate and a true “bridge-builder” throughout his career, according to his son, James. The bridge is now home to different art exhibits that vary throughout the year.

Throughout the fundraising process, the Burgum family and community were focused on results. What would this place become? How will it impact the community? Olsen and the team at Plains Art Museum painted a vision of hundreds of kids coming, learning about art and artists-in-residence pursuing their trade, all leading to a whole new generation of arts advocates.

And that dream was realized. Today, they are proud to say that more than 10,000 kids come through the Center for Creativity each year, a number that Olsen says far exceeds their initial projections for the space. In addition, the Center is home to different artists-in-residence who are able to teach students and create art using the resources of the studio.

“I love the natural light in here,” says Olivia Bain, a current artist-in-residence who specializes in sculpting. “It’s just a beautiful space to work.”

Bain teaches students about the artwork in the museum, also leading a hands-on project where students create their own art. Her favorite part of her job is watching these new, young artists bring their families to the museum and share what they have learned.

Katherine Burgum Center for Creativity
Artist-in-residence Olivia Bain reads to a group of children at the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Center for Creativity in Downtown Fargo.

“It gives students a sense of ownership of the museum,” she said. “They get to be the tour guide, and it’s their special place to show their family.”

Having a gallery connected to an interactive studio makes the Plains Art Museum a trailblazer in the museum realm, according to Andy Maus, museum director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum.

“As a museum person, I’ve basically dedicated my life to understanding museums,” he says. “So for me, this is actually transformative in the sense of transforming what a museum can be. Now, it’s not just a looking-and-learning space, it’s a making space.”

For Maus, having a makerspace like the Center for Creativity is not just a luxury, it’s crucial to a healthy city. Artistic experiences lead to creative minds, he says, which leads to stronger leaders and a stronger community. Today, when he sees students hard at work sculpting hamburgers or painting in watercolor, he sees it as a testament to the flourishing growth of Fargo-Moorhead.

“The success of the arts is the success of this community,” Maus says. “This is going to be so important to Fargo’s future.”

Read past installments from the “It Wasn’t Always Like This” series here.


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