Englishwoman makes her mark on Louisa arts

The story of how Karen Welch became director of the Louisa Arts Center is a classic tale of tapping the wellspring of talent that exists in this small community.

Welch was looking around for ways to volunteer when she met Stephanie Koren at a Lake Anna Business Partnership event in the summer of 2018. Koren, an arts center board member, asked Welch if she had ever written a job description. Indeed, she had: Welch had started her career years ago in human resources.

Welch and her husband had just been married, and she agreed to do a little research about arts centers and to draft the executive director’s job description while on her honeymoon. When she returned, she learned that the person the arts center hoped to hire had decided not to pursue the position.

“Stephanie said, ‘Right, we were hoping the person we were looking at would take this position, but they said no, and our president, Robert See, said, What about your friend, would she consider it?’ And so drafting that job description was my one piece of volunteering.”

A native of London in the United Kingdom, Welch came to this country to work at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., helping her countrymen acclimate to living in a new land. 

At that point, she already had some experience with stepping outside her cultural comfort zone. She travelled abroad a great deal when she managed the international division for a London-based nonprofit organization that trained people to be leaders in the education field.

“It gave me an appreciation for working with different cultures and nationalities, which is probably why I found it easier to make the transition from D.C. to Louisa,” Welch said.

Still, she found it hard to stomach giving up her long-standing connections to her fellow Englishmen and women. Besides working at the embassy, Welch had continued to serve as chairman for a British charity that helps the deaf and hard of hearing. 

Welch’s partner, now her husband, had owned a house at Lake Anna for more than a decade. He encouraged her to join him here full-time. 

“He said to me, “This is your community now.’ That helped me make the break,” she said. “It’s difficult to pull away when you have a lot of good relationships and loyalty to people. But once he said that, I said, ‘He’s right.’” 

Since April 1, Welch has been at the arts center’s helm, finding herself in a central role in her adopted home. As was true when she helped lead the charity for the deaf, Welch finds herself operating an organization with a mission she was previously unfamiliar with. She didn’t have experience overseeing a group devoted to the arts, but she has the business acumen to lead it forward. That sets her apart from Michael Bollinger, who directed the arts center’s growth in the mid-2010s and had a background as a producer of theatre and other live performances.

“I’ve been asked to come in for my business and operational skills,” she said. “And we have a fabulous program director in Meagan [DuBois], who has a background in performing arts. Between us, we make a formidable team.” 

Welch has also hired two other staff in the past few months, including an events coordinator, and an apprentice who came through Louisa County High School’s career and technical education program.  

With these positions filled, Welch has put her focus on fundraising to put the arts center on a stable financial footing. 

“Sometimes there’s a misconception in the community that the arts is [entirely] funded by the government and other agencies,” she said. “But without the generosity of the people of Louisa, this place would not exist.”

The new director has a vision to increase that goodwill, in part by taking art to the community rather than relying on people to come to the arts center. Staff have already experimented with this on a small scale, visiting some area mobile home parks with one of the public schools’ art instructors to share what the center has to offer.

“We are in a rural community and face the issues of lack of public transport and having household incomes below the average,” she said. “I know there are a lot of people, particularly children, who aren’t able to enjoy our shows. So I’d like to get an arts bus, maybe by converting an old school bus, that could be like an outreach program. We need to be able to cater to all of our community.”

The arts center is also expanding its repertoire of classes for young people and adults. Welch said the plan this fall is to offer at least one class for each of the two age groups every month.

Welch is especially interested in drawing more young people to the arts center, and has harnessed her apprentices to spread the word about events through social media like Instagram and Facebook. She’s already seen an impact in turnout at the Music and Wine at Sundown events, which occur on Friday evenings and feature live music and food for sale.