For love of community: Laura Helle stepping down as director of Austin Area Arts
Published 7:00 am Saturday, February 3, 2024
For nearly a decade, Laura Helle has been at the head of Austin Area Arts, however after seven years in the position, Helle has announced she is stepping down to take the position of Housing Division director with Three Rivers Community Action.
Her last day with the organization she’s called home since November of 2016 is Feb. 12.
“I’m a big community person,” Helle said. “I wanted to be involved in the community and I just happened to have an arts background. When the position was opened and it was the arts and the community, non profit work, it was a really attractive package.”
Helle had already been involved in the community in the years leading up to her start as Austin Area Arts director, including a stint as director at the Hormel Historic Home from 2006-2011 and leading Vision 2020 for three years.
She was also the director of Grants and Alumni Relations at Riverland Community College for one year.
“It was a really good fit for me,” Helle said of her time at RCC. “I enjoyed my time at Riverland, but I wasn’t leading a team and I really missed that. That’s been the great part about what I do here and I’ll be able to do that with Three Rivers as well.”
In operation since the 1990s, Austin Area Arts had made big strides in its programming leading up to Helle’s hiring including the addition of the Austin ArtWorks Festival in 2012 and the new Austin ArtWorks Center in 2014.
Running alongside has been a tripling of programming within Austin Area Arts.
“I felt a lot of it was backfilling structure underneath a rollercoaster that was already running,” Helle said. “The programming was off and running and people were taking classes, the artwork was selling and the festival was going great and the Paramount was continuing to offer all sorts of programming.”
Helle said that part of the reason arts in Austin has been able to continue adding and succeeding was funding from the Legacy Amendment. In 2016, Austin Area Arts received $15,000 in grant funding from the Minnesota Arts Board while in 2023 that was bumped up to $87,000.
Options have been opened for Austin Area Arts to expand its programming in an explosive way.
“We’ve just been able to leverage the funding opportunities that are out there and fill a need in the community,” Helle said.
That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly threatening. In a world that requires public interaction, the pandemic threatened to irrevocably damage the arts in Austin going forward.
“Obviously, it was by far my most stressful moments in nonprofit management,” Helle said. “Luckily, the government was able to act very quickly with PPE loans. Once we were able to qualify for that PPE loan I said, ‘okay, we’re going to make it.’ We needed that bridge to keep going.”
Helle said she didn’t come into the job with any specific goals, but rather held an overarching desire to make the community better.
That being said, Helle did come to focus on two particular areas: the upkeep of the Paramount Theatre, which has been primed for a renovation, and expanding diversity.
“Some ideas worked, others didn’t,” Helle said, saying that now activities within Austin Area Arts are finally mirroring the community it’s housed in. “That literally was my whole seven years to get here. It’s also exciting because I feel like we’ve figured out some good strategies.”
The Paramount Theatre still has a ways to go. Helle said that during her time with Austin Area Arts she’s seen at least five designs and three funding requests to The Hormel Foundation.
Not being able to see that work completed in her time will stay with her, but Helle also knows that somebody else may be able to get the work done.
“Leaving with that one not being totally done is hard, but on the other hand maybe whoever is going to take the seat next is the missing ingredient and take it over the finish line,” Helle said.
Another aspect of her time at Austin Area Arts is the growth of the Austin ArtWorks Festival. The festival has done nothing but grow since its inception in 2010 and continued during Helle’s time.
At the same time, she came on board during a time of change. The festival’s run at the Downtown Power Plant was coming to an end, requiring the festival to find a new home.
Helle said they reviewed 50 potential sites within Austin before settling on the green behind the Mower County Justice Center.
However, she’s also seen the festival reach a stage of sustainability.
“That one makes me smile because it got over that hump of the first few years,” Helle said. “You’re recruiting like crazy for everything. Somewhere in the last seven years we’ve turned the corner where they are calling us. I want to be a part of this.”
As an outsider looking in, Helle hopes that Austin Area Arts will find ways to branch out in the future and bolster its programming with new opportunities.
“I think it’s on a really good path,” Helle said. “I think saying everything should keep going on that path is deceptively easy. It’s a lot of work and commitment. I feel like the community keeps responding to the programming we’re offering.”
“We should continue the message that this is not extra on the side; gravy on the potatoes,” Helle continued. “This is the potatoes. It’s a key element of a community and you can’t skimp on it.”
Looking back, Helle said her time with Austin Area Arts has been something she won’t soon forget.
“It’s been great,” she said. “I love it. I love the challenge, I love that every day is different. I loved putting together a team of people that work together really well and complement each other. Focused on playing to strengths and knowing ourselves and those strengths.”
But Helle is also excited about the future and her new position.
“The idea of building those relationships all over southeastern Minnesota is one of the things that really attracts me,” she said. “Of course, the need for housing is so great and putting my skill set toward that problem is really gratifying.”