By Randy Paulson/Staff Writer Feb 15, 2023
MAHTOMEDI — There are 16,819,200 minutes in 32 years, which also happens to be the same amount of time that Ellie Bruner has served as president of the Wildwood Artist Series (WAS).
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” said Bruner, who recently retired from her long-held position.
She will be honored for her years of service at the nonprofit arts organization’s next concert, featuring musician Peter Mayer on Saturday, Feb. 25, at Mahtomedi High School’s Chautauqua Fine Arts Center.
For the dedication ceremony that will also take place at the concert, the organization is gathering memories and notes of gratitude for Bruner’s work and invites community members to submit such statements by emailing [email protected]
Bruner was a founding member of the artist series, which started as a committee of the Mahtomedi Area Educational Foundation with an aim of bringing high-quality, family-appropriate arts events to the community. The organization also provides educational opportunities in the performing arts for students.
Brett Smith, a music teacher at O.H. Anderson Elementary School at the time, pitched the idea for the artist series; Bruner then was chosen to head it.
“It was the performing arts, the live performing arts, that were very important to our community,” Bruner said, adding that tickets for the Series’ first concert season sold out.
The concert series continued each year since and has brought performing artists from around the world to the Chautauqua Fine Arts stage. Some notable performers through the years that Bruner mentioned were Arlo Guthrie, the Okee Dokee Brothers, the Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats, the U.S. Army Band, U.S. Marine Band and the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
WAS launched its Professional Performing Artist Residency Program in 2016, which paid artists to do extended residencies in the Mahtomedi Public Schools’ four buildings. In light of Bruner’s retirement, the program was recently renamed the Ellen C. Bruner Professional Performing Artist Residency Program.
During the residencies, artists give students first-hand learning experiences for their respective performing arts mediums. The residency program has exposed students to Swedish and American folk songs and dances, Black Gospel choral style and culture, musical and lyrical composition and more.
Bruner said with a chuckle that when she initially took on the role of WAS president in the early 1990s, she didn’t think at the time she’d hold the position for more than three decades.
The arts, however, have been an ever-present part of her life.
While Bruner was growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, her mother — who she said was “very artistic” — encouraged her and her brother to take music lessons
“We lived near the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She had a subscription to that and took me many, many times to the opera, to New York,” Bruner said. “I was exposed to the arts very early, mainly through my mom but also my dad played fiddle.”
She later studied music in college, including at graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That’s where she met her husband, Phil, on a blind date. The couple married about a year and a half afterward in 1964. At the time, Bruner was teaching K-12 music at Roycemore School in Evanston, Illinois.
She and Phil later moved to Rome, New York, while Phil was serving in the U.S. Air Force. She earned her doctorate degree in the humanities from Syracuse University in the meantime.
The couple moved to Minnesota later in the 1960s and lived in Mahtomedi from 1968 to 1975. They currently reside in neighboring Grant.
Although Bruner thoroughly enjoyed her tenure as WAS president, she said there comes a time to hand the leadership reins to someone else. That someone else is Julie Molitor, who became the organization’s new president in January.
Molitor, who works full-time at 3M and lives in Birchwood, has attended WAS concerts through the years. She became secretary of the arts organization last May, with the intention being that Bruner would hand off the president position to Molitor this year.
Molitor expressed her gratitude to Bruner for her dedication to leading the organization for so many years and for the countless others who’ve helped make the artist series successful.
“There are just so many people behind the scenes, and there’s a fantastic committee that really puts a lot of time in to put these performances together and bring this great community asset to us,” Molitor said.
She looks forward to working with other artist series committee members, as well as music teachers in the school district who support the program, in bringing new acts and old favorites to the Chautauqua stage. Molitor also is eager to continue boosting the series’ presence in the community and on social media.
“The arts have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, and it’s been the slowest to recover,” she said.
“What I’m excited about is working with the team to get the word out more and get more people engaged and bringing performances and artists that maybe people didn’t even know existed, or introducing types of music to people that maybe they wouldn’t have gone to if they had to, say, drive to Minneapolis or something.”