Karen Lechner, an avid ballroom and salsa dancer and the current business manager at the nonprofit Armstrong-Keta fish hatchery, will begin transitioning into her new role as executive director of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council in late October. She will be working full-time at some point in November.
Lechner grew up in Boise, Idaho, and has lived in Juneau on and off since 1994. She's worked at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters. She's volunteered with the board of Juneau International Folk Dancers and helped arrange tango workshops. She loves dance, visual art, jazz and classical music, especially Ella Fitzgerald, Holly Cole and Dave Brubeck.
"I will be able to work in a position directly with the community and other arts organizations advocating for and presenting the arts - something I believe that should be very accessible both in a community and in education," said Lechner, 36.
"I appreciate the fact that arts are valuable," she said. "Basically they cultivate individuals and beauty in a community, and not to sound cliché, but they're kind of that language that everybody speaks. For children, and even for some adults, access to arts really provides self-expression. It's a way to bring your inner world into the outer world. For some people, art is an amazing experience that really has the power to change lives."
Lechner was hired by the 13-member board in late October after a three-month process. About 15 people applied for the job.
"I do have some big shoes to fill," she said. "There are so many arts organizations in Juneau that it does work to have a contact point that's aware of what the different groups are doing and that can identify projects that people can collaborate on."
"That's the other neat thing about Juneau," she said. "Several times during the year you have to pick and choose, because you look at what's going on and you can't possibly do it all. That's phenomenal in a town of 30,000, to actually have to worry about what you're doing on the weekend."
Lechner took piano lessons from age 6 through her freshman year of college. She participated in jazz, madrigal and acappella choirs in high school and college. Her mother was a choir director, and her sister was involved with jazz dance and youth theater.
"Arts have always been a part of my life, whether we were attending a student puppet show at the public library, going to a production at the Boise Little Theatre or making certain that we saw some musical group that was coming to town," Lechner said.
"My parents recognized the fact that arts were a part of a well-rounded upbringing," she said. "At the time, Boise didn't have the wonderful performing arts center that it has now. Much of the arts programs were being offered by nonprofits."
Lechner enrolled at Washington State University and initially majored in music. She soon switched to pubic relations and advertising with a minor in fine arts, and a focus on art history.
While at WSU, she landed her first arts-related job, a semester-long internship in Washington, D.C., with the Kennedy Center's media relations department. Free tickets were some of the perks, and that season's schedule included a performance by the Roland Petit Ballet de Marseilles - a show she remembers well.
"I cried," Lechner said. "It was a beautiful love story."
After school, she found a job with the Idaho Repertory Theater (part of the University of Idaho Department of Theater Arts) and a summer position with the Colorado Music Festival. She decided she didn't want a desk job and a friend encouraged her to work with the U.S. Forest Service. She bounced through Jackson, Wyo., Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and Salt Lake City before first coming to Juneau seasonally in 1994.
"I found that Juneau had a lot of what I was looking for - recreation, mountains, trees, snow, arts and especially a real community," she said.
Lechner found a full-time job in 1998 as the assistant director of Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Her title turned into the director of visitor information services. She worked with schools and community groups to present programs.
In 1999, she began volunteering as a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Alaska. She soon became a board member.
"Being able to experience the amazing program that Tony Newman and Marc Wheeler have started there, it touches you emotionally," Lechner said. "You realize how caring and committed the community of Juneau can be. It was at that point that I realized that I wanted to be involved with another nonprofit in Juneau."
That led her to her current job as business manager at Armstrong-Keta, Inc., a fish hatchery on southern Baranof Island. She's been there two years.
"Fisheries aren't really a healthy industry in Southeast Alaska right now, and I've had the good fortune to work with some individuals who have illustrated how creative and how persistent you need to be to make things work," Lechner said.
"I think these lessons are applicable to any nonprofit and can be applied to funding, benefits and event production," she said.
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