Austin Area Arts | Exploring the Midwest Podcast Episode 39

Last Updated on March 8, 2022 by Jody Halsted

Public art has become more common in cities and towns around the Midwest. Sculpture and mural walks or art trails are growing attractions.

Austin, Minnesota has a really incredible story of how revitalization formed the base of the public art in the community.  Laura Helle is Executive Director of Austin Area Arts.

An Introduction to Austin

Austin, Minnesota, is a moderately sized city of about 26,000 people on the rolling prairie of southern Minnesota.

“It’s not what you’d call a metropolitan but I say a thriving, vibrant small city,” says Helle. “I actually grew up on a farm five miles outside of town. There were a thousand people in the town, so to me it’s like, we have all the basics. We have a library and Marshalls . . . what else do you need? So it’s not what you consider your typical Metro, but it has a long tradition of excellence in the arts, in all kinds of arts, including music and visual arts.”

playground sculpture

Public Art in Austin, Minnesota

Austin has an impressive amount of public art on display, including murals and statues. “When you come, just keep your eyes peeled,” says Helle. “We have a bank that has an incredible huge mosaic on the outside of it, just a private bank. And also through Discover Austin, Minnesota, you can find our statue tour. There’s a map that you can use to go through town and see all the different outdoor statues. So you could certainly plan for it or you can make it a little bit more like a scavenger hunt and just see what you see as you’re there, but there is art everywhere.”

Historic Paramount Theater

The Transformation of the Paramount Theater

The historic Paramount Theater in Austin was built in 1929 and operated as a movie theater showing first-run movies until 1972.

“It was one of those atmosphere theaters where when you walk in, you’re transported to another place in time,” says Helle. “So it looked like a Spanish villa under the stars. There’s a domed ceiling that’s painted blue and star lights shine through and sometimes clouds can move across the ceiling.”

After going out of business as a movie theater, it changed hands a number of times, including one owner who turned it into a nightclub and painted everything black. Then in 1990, after the building had been vacant for several years, a group of arts lovers came together in the hopes of making it into a performing arts space. The group banded together and purchased The Paramount.

“My favorite tidbit about that is they couldn’t find a bank that would take a chance on the mortgage, so they ended up having half the mortgage at two different banks,” says Helle. “I mean, find a way, make a way.”

After purchasing the theater, the group was slowly able to refurbish it back to how it looked when it was first built. Then they started holding performing arts in the space.

“We have an organization called Matchbox Children’s Theater, and one of the former leaders of Matchbox told me that for the first few shows they just told people to bring lawn chairs because they had a stage and they had an auditorium but they didn’t have any seats in the auditorium. So it was ‘Bring your own chair — but we’re doing theater,’ ” says Helle.

Austin ArtWorks festival

Austin ArtWorks Festival

In 2011, a group in Austin started doing some future visioning about what were some things they could get done to improve the community by the year 2020. They called their group Vision 2020. One of the results of this group was the Austin ArtWorks Festival, founded in 2012, and now annually the last weekend in August.

“We bring in fine arts, exhibitors, have an author stage, live music, stage arts demonstrations–anything you can think of arts-related–and it’s in the heart of downtown,” says Helle.

Austin ArtWorks Center

Austin ArtWorks Center

In 2014, the Austin ArtWorks Center was brought to life.

“At that time there was a small arts nonprofit in our mall called Austin Area Arts Center,” says Helle. “The mall was actually closing and being torn down and redeveloped. They needed a new home and there was another vacant building downtown. This one was an old bank building that was built in the 1890s. So Austin Area Arts formed a merger with the other art center and brought them in and did the fundraising to remodel the building.”

The Austin ArtWorks Center contains three stories of art. There is a clay cavern in the basement, where visitors can throw clay on the wheel. It also contains a kiln and all the necessary equipment for pottery making. The main floor is a retail center with over 100 artists selling their original artwork. And the second floor is a gallery, with additional space for classrooms and events.

“Art That Connects”

“I think one of Austin’s unique things is that we’re a big enough community that we’ve got mass, but we’re also a small enough community that people feel responsible,” says Helle. “So people feel like, well, gosh, if I want to have a place to take my kids for art lessons, I should probably support this effort. Or if I want to have my kid be in a play or if I want to go to a play, I should probably support it. So people get involved and they’re very hands-on.”

Art That Connects is the slogan of Austin Area Arts. Helle thinks it fits Austin’s art scene perfectly.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we saw it demonstrated to us over and over, that people feel connected to each other through arts. People feel connected to the greater good and something bigger and can kind of let go of everyday worries with arts,” says Helle. And so that that’s our mission. We want to help people connect down to that essential part of themselves and sort of wash off the dust of the everyday and get back to the places of wonder.”

The Austin Area Arts has programming for all ages, operating both the performing arts theater and the visual arts center. They offer everything from comedy night to art classes. They also have a program at the Austin ArtWorks Center called Art Rocks, an open jam session with a house band. “And then if you are ready to kind of make the jump from being an audience member to a performer, you can stand up and call your song and the house band will back you up while you perform,” says Helle. “That was one of the things that we stopped doing during COVID, and people really missed.” They plan to bring it back soon, but will make a decision that’s rooted in the safety of Austin residents.

Spam Museum, Austin, Minnesota
SPAM Museum

Top 3 Tips for Visiting Austin

  1. Climb the robot at Todd Park. It seems like an ordinary city park with a bunch of shelters with picnic tables and little playgrounds, but one of the playgrounds at Todd Park has a custom-made 1950s robot slide that you have to see to believe. It’s four levels high, and visitors can climb up to the level of the arms, which are the slides, and slide down the arms, but they can also climb to the level of the head and look down.
  2. Experience SuperFresh. Run by Jim Stiles and sometimes referred to as “Jim’s SuperFresh,” is a garden center and bakery in one. No matter what the season is, you can go in and see something growing and living, from pumpkins in the fall to Christmas trees to everything for your garden in the spring. On the grocery side they have all kinds of baked goods, including delicious macaroons. Helle recommends if you want a pie, get there early in the morning. They also have fresh produce, cheese curds, salami–all the fun treats. There is truly something for everyone.
  3. Explore Downtown Austin. Visit the Spam Museum if that’s up your alley, but also allow yourself time to stroll, shop and eat downtown. Stop in at places like Sweet Reads Books, an independent bookstore and candy store in one, South Central Athlete, which has shoes, clothing and cool stuff you didn’t know you wanted, and Piggy Blues BBQ, where you can get filled on the delicious barbecue but need to save room for the Key Lime Pie.

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