(Above, from left) Max Stevenson, a 2008 Sturgeon Bay High School alumnus, and now chief of staff of Norway House in Minneapolis, is shown with H.M. Queen Sonja of Norway; Christina Carleton, executive director, Norway House; Ambassador Anniken R. Krutnes, Norway’s ambassador to the United States; and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar during the building-dedication ceremony in October 2022. Submitted.
When Max Stevenson was taking advanced-placement (AP) art courses at Sturgeon Bay High School, meeting the queen of Norway was probably not in his career plan.
But last October, he did just that when Her Majesty Queen Sonja of Norway visited Minneapolis for the grand opening of Norway House’s Innovation + Culture Center. Stevenson, who had been director of exhibitions at the center, was recently named chief of staff.
A 2008 Sturgeon Bay High School alumnus, he is one of approximately 45 art grads from the school who have gone on to professional art careers or enrolled as art students, according to Nicole Herbst, the high school’s arts teacher.
Many of them got a head start on college credits through the AP courses the high school offers to juniors and seniors, she said, and many of the grads have also qualified for substantial scholarships.
Herbst taps local artists to talk to her students, arranges regular visits from recruiters for the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and other art schools, and welcomes graduates who are now working in the arts to return to talk about their experiences, as Stevenson did.
“When I went back to Sturgeon Bay many years ago to talk with students,” he said. “I told them that often when you talk of an art career, you think you will be an artist. But there are so many different career paths in art – whether in a gallery or a museum, or designing sets for theaters, art for mass production or doing personal work to sell in a gallery.
“I have been fortunate to experience many of those – a production artist, working for an institution, working as a consultant to collectors and doing sales. A lot of students don’t realize how broad an arts career can be. I haven’t produced my own artwork for quite a while, but I have helped other artists produce theirs, do gallery visits or write grant applications.
“There was a time when I wanted to pursue a museum career, but I decided museum culture wasn’t for me because I wanted to be more engaged with people rather than in an institutionalized curatorial role.”
Stevenson’s work at Norway House is an example of how a background in the arts can morph into a broader role. The center recently opened a $19.6 million, 18,000-square-foot addition that was supported by a $5 million challenge grant from Minnesota in 2017.
The center is not a museum, its executive director, Christina Carleton, told the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. “We’re an arts, business and cultural center.”
Norway House’s programs include the Business Accelerator Resource Network to assist Nordic business leaders in bringing their products and services to the American marketplace.
“We support improved collaboration between the United States, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Estonia and the greater Baltic and Nordic states,” the center says on its website.
With the expansion, Norway House now has an event center that can host 330 people for a conference, plus more space for art displays, a catering kitchen, staff offices and a genealogy center.
The center’s expansion also included dedicating a 16-and-a-half-foot-tall pine cone sculpture, titled “Seeds,” created by Norwegian artist Finn Eirik Modahl in polished reflective steel.
A Foundation in Art
Sturgeon Bay High School provided Stevenson with a good foundation for a career in the arts. The school had an arts club “so if you had downtime between classes or before or after school, there was a place to hang out,” he said.
“When I was there, Nicole [Herbst] had just received funding for a media arts room with a computer, back in 2008, where we could explore digital technology. That was helpful and met us students where we were at at the time,” Stevenson said.
The Miller Art Museum’s annual exhibition of high school artists’ work also provided a great experience, he said.
“That was a great way to introduce students to a real-world aspect of being an artist – from creation, to jury, to installation – and also seeing what other careers can be involved, such as gallery curator and museum director,” he said. “We learned how to talk about our work through artist statements and in person with the public at the opening.”
Stevenson’s career exemplifies the many paths an art career can take. He majored in studio art at St. Olaf, which included glassblowing and printmaking. When he was back home in Door County between terms, he did some glassblowing at Popelka Trenchard Glass, assisted Wence and Sandra Martinez with some marketing at their Jacksonport gallery, and got his first restaurant experience as a server at Trattoria Dal Santo.
That résumé helped Stevenson to get a job right out of college with the now-closed Circa Art Gallery, which represented 40-plus artists from across the nation. He also worked with interior designers and architects on design projects and with private collectors to help manage – and in some cases, donate – their paintings and sculptures.
He also worked in restaurants part time.
“I started as a server for the Blue Plate Restaurant Company, which owns several restaurants in the Minneapolis area,” Stevenson said. “I then moved to manager and then became their hospitality trainer. I sometimes had to juggle three or four jobs at once.
“I like meeting new people, understanding who they are now, learning what is happening and what projects they are doing. I am a curious person who loves to meet people – especially people with different ideas from mine.”
Learning how to interact with restaurant customers proved helpful when Stevenson began working in a gallery.
“It helped me learn how to talk about art with people who might know a lot about art,” he said. “I did it by sharing the artist’s story.”
At Norway House, Stevenson seems to have found an excellent match for his skills.