Expanding an arts need; Knoebel stepping down as the AACA executive director

Published 11:11 am Tuesday, August 16, 2016

When Jennie Knoebel started in 2011 as the Austin Area Commission for the Arts first full-time employee and first executive director, the group oversaw the Historic Paramount Theatre and was looking to expand its umbrella. When she leaves the AACA on Aug. 30, she’ll leave behind an organization that now oversees the Austin ArtWorks Festival, the Austin ArtWorks Center, and is looking ahead to expand the Paramount Theatre.

“We’ve expanded a lot,” Knoebel said. “And I feel like we’ve expanded enough to fill the needs of the community.”

Knoebel recently accepted a job as the Iowa Arts Council’s arts learning manager, a new position in which she’ll develop new programming that will partner nonprofit arts and culture organizations with K-12, colleges and universities, and lifetime learners.

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“It just seems like a really good fit for me because it’s what I really enjoy doing,” Knoebel said.

Knoebel will leave the AACA after this year’s ArtWorks Festival, and the AACA will host a going away party from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 30 at the Austin ArtWorks Center, 300 N. Main St. She’ll start working for the Iowa Arts Council in Des Moines on Sept. 12.

Lindsey Kepper, former owner of the Yoga Studio of Austin, will serve as interim director while the AACA seeks out a new executive director to lead the charge into the future.

“We are kind of at a point in the organization where we need more of an expert in maintaining and keeping things going versus creating new, and my specialty is definitely in new creation probably more so than keeping something going,” Knoebel said.

Reinvigorating the arts

Knoebel graduated from Austin High School in 1998, took post secondary classes at Riverland Community College, and then earned degrees in theatre and communication from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse before attending the University of Minnesota for graduate school in arts administration.

Before returning to Austin, she worked as a graduate assistant at the U of M’s theater and dance department and was communications coordinator for the department.

Since joining the AACA in 2011, she’s overseen an explosion of growth for the commission. The AACA’s first big change under her tenure came when it helped form the Austin ArtWorks Festival in 2012.

“I think the festival really reinvigorated the town as far as visual arts go,” Knoebel said.

The AACA then opened the Austin ArtWorks Center in the former downtown bank building in 2014. The AACA has since added classes and several programs.

“I feel like we have done a lot of new programming since I started,” Knoebel said.

But now Knoebel said the AACA is in a place where it could use a new perspective and someone with a new skill set, especially as the AACA moves toward a long-planned expansion of the Paramount Theatre.

Moving forward, the AACA will need to brainstorm ways to continue to raise money, Knoebel said, which is especially challenging since the AACA isn’t supported by one large foundation or government entity.

“We’re completely nonprofit and really rely on individual contributions,” Knoebel said.

Most other arts organizations the size of the AACA have one large contributor, but the AACA does not.

“We just don’t have that here in Austin,” Knoebel said. “That is the challenge and that’s what we’re trying to figure out. Because there’s obviously a need here.”

Paramount and Austin Area Art Center were both volunteer run, and payroll is a big expense, but Knoebel noted you need personnel to run something quality and professional. In her time with the AACA, the organization has had as many as three full-time employees, but it now has two full-time positions and two part-time contractors.

In recent years, the AACA has worked to make sure it’s in a strong financial place before proceeding with the Paramount expansion, which would add dressing rooms and backstage area, an expanded lobby and main floor bathroom. The expansion could also include a multipurpose space for rehearsals and other such events. The work likely won’t affect the auditorium, aside from some lighting upgrades and possible changes to the stage.

But the project won’t be easy. The expansion’s estimated $4 to $7 million price tag far exceeds the $35,000 budget for the first ArtWorks Festival, the festival budget of more than $100,000 this year, and the $600,000 campaign for the ArtWorks Center.

“The challenge with the expansion is it will be the largest campaign that we’ve ever done,” Knoebel said.

Austin ArtWorks Center executive director Jennie Knoebel cuts the ribbon during the grand opening for the center in August of 2014. Knoebel has been a driving force in building the arts scene in Austin. -- Herald file photo

Austin ArtWorks Center executive director Jennie Knoebel cuts the ribbon during the grand opening for the center in August of 2014. Knoebel has been a driving force in building the arts scene in Austin. — Herald file photo

‘Anything is possible’

Knoebel will take many fond memories when she leaves Austin.

For starters, she’s enjoyed working in her hometown and getting to know and work with people she knew growing up.

She said the ArtWorks Festival will be among her fondest memories, especially the inaugural festival and then the second year’s addition of the concert with Cloud Cult and Martin Zellar. She’ll also fondly look back on opening the Austin ArtWorks Center.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “Because when I first started the job, I really had no idea that all of those pieces would become part of it, and it really taught me to be open to other people’s ideas. It was only through everyone’s work that it happened. I led the charge, but it wouldn’t have happened if I wouldn’t have had the support that I did.”

To Knoebel, that highlighted the importance of a community and working together with volunteers.

“If you have the right people involved, anything is possible,” she said.

Knoebel admitted it will be tough to move on after all the work with the AACA.

“I feel a little bit like it’s my babies,” she said with a laugh. “But it will be good. I feel like it’s the right time.”

As for a new director, Knoebel recommended he or she be open to everyone suggestions and to know we’re all here working toward the same goal.

In grad school for arts administration, Knoebel had two goals: One was to run an arts organization in a small community and the other was to work for an arts agency.

So now Knoebel noted she’s about to fulfill both of her goals.

Knoebel isn’t daunted by the task ahead of moving into newly-created position with the Iowa Arts Council; in fact, she’s used to taking on new things.

Even before taking a brand new job with the AACA, she was one of the first students in UW-La Crosse’s theater management degree as it was getting going, and then she was in grad school as the U of M was forming its arts and cultural leadership program.

For both, she jokes she was a guinea pig for the schools.

“It’s really in my wheelhouse to take on new positions that don’t exist,” she said. “That is where my creativity comes from.”

Outside the AACA, Knoebel is a certified Yoga instructor but doesn’t know if she’ll continue teaching after moving to Iowa. She’s also an avid craft beer fan and tours several breweries, and she enjoys biking, reading and traveling.

She enjoys reading nonfiction, especially self-improvement books by authors like Brene Brown, Cheryl Strayed and Anne Lamott.

She also travels to Seattle once a year along with visiting a new destination each year. She went to Alaska earlier this year to visit her brother.