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The Indiana Daily Student

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Helene O'Leary explains her newly-created arts and humanities position

President Michael McRobbie and Provost Lauren Robel hired Helene O'Leary as the new assistant provost for strategic campus advancement at IU. O'Leary has been tasked with gathering private support for campus arts and humanities initiatives as a part of her new position. 

Helene O'Leary's new job is to find funding for campus arts and humanities initiatives and help campus arts organizations collaborate in her newly-created position as assistant provost for strategic campus advancement. In a Q&A with the Indiana Daily Student, she shared what her new role entails and how she will serve IU students, as well as the Bloomington community.

Indiana Daily Student: Can you tell me a bit about some of your past work?

O'Leary: Development has been my main background. I’ve been charged with fundraising roughly $50 million over the last couple years. In my various roles, I’ve helped raise money in cities outside Indiana, like in New York and Los Angeles. I’ve had a lot of experience working in and around various aspects of fundraising and building sustainability for IU. I’ve also done marketing and communications and events.

IDS: What exactly does your new role entail?

O'Leary: It was created alongside the Arts and Humanities Council and the work that they’re doing. Lauren Robel (IU provost and executive vice president) and President McRobbie recognized the need for more arts and humanities several years ago and launched efforts to make arts and humanities work more accessible to students and faculty on a broader platform. The council was developed to encourage the collaboration between different arts and humanities organizations on campus, like the art museum, the cinema, the Mathers museum, the Lilly Library. All of these are, in their own right, world-class institutions, but they can do so much more if they work together. They all have their own mission and purpose, but just imagine the power of it if they collaborated. The idea of the council was to generate some new and innovative collaborations. Now, how do you do that? You get the leaders of these organizations together once a month and start a council to create collaborative programs. What I do in my role is to take all these passionate, innovative projects emerging from these discussions and help bring together the resources to bring them to bear by working with private philanthropists, alumni, foundations, grants, corporations.

IDS: What are some of your goals in your new role?

O'Leary: We want to make sure we have a lot of opportunities for students to participate in world-class arts and community experiences. We don’t want students to think, ‘Hey, once I graduate, maybe I’ll start going to see the opera." No, you start that now. You can do that anytime. We want to incentivize students to do that. There’s a ton to do on this campus, so how do you sort out the coolest stuff to do and gather your friends to go to? It takes effort. A big part of my role is to raise awareness for what’s available and to help students see how incredible all these opportunities are and to help bring in the funds to support them.

IDS: Are there any key differences between this role and your past work?

O'Leary: When people come to philanthropy, they come to it from their own experiences. When you donate to Kelley or the College of Arts and Sciences, you do it because you graduated from it and have a sense of loyalty and responsibility, but the arts is different. People offer their patronage to programs that spark their passions or speak to them on an emotional level. So whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a retired army general or a hedge funds manager, ballet can speak to you, or Edgar Allen Poe can have a profound transformational effect on you. So I need to look at how you bring these kinds of people to campus and get them excited and engaged with what’s here in a way that will get them to appreciate it and, the next step, to invest in it. We need to show them art and tell them the stories behind it in a way that will get them to make that personal sacrifice.

IDS: What’s the importance of bringing in this private support for arts initiatives?

O'Leary: The University has funding to take care of its main priorities — taking care of classes and buildings and utilities. If you’re trying to do something new and innovative, especially with the arts and humanities, we often don’t have a huge budget for that. There’s no state funding for doing something cool around the juxtaposition of cinema and rare books. If we want to do something around Sylvia Plath’s hair at the Lilly Library on the anniversary of her death and do a film series around her and then maybe bring in a lecturer from the English department to talk about her impact on modern society, we may not have built-in funding to connect these departments and organizations and make this happen. The Lilly Library has money for its own operations, and the English department has money for its classes, but we don’t have the money to do those extra collaborations. So what I do is to see when the leaders of these organizations have these ideas and to bring in funding to make it happen when it’s beyond what each individual organization can afford.

IDS: How do you form connections with donors so that they choose IU and the arts to donate to?

O'Leary: I actually think that the first step is to make sure people know about what resources IU has in the arts and how those can be built on, and that involves a lot of marketing and PR. The next step is to listen to potential donors and get to know them, so that if an organization has ties to India, maybe we can do a lecture on a topic related to India to give them something that really interests them. The first building block is to create opportunities to engage potential donors with the work we do here by having events or behind-the-scenes tours, just opportunities for them to participate and connect. And the other thing is that even though there are things like meeting performers or special passes you get as a donor, they want more than that. They want to see that what they’re doing and donating is making a difference. If we show them the difference they are making or will make in students’ lives, that’s what gets donors interested.

IDS: What’s the importance of having that funding so that students leave IU with an understanding and appreciation for the arts and humanities?

O'Leary: It’s a part of being a well-rounded, communicative person. Arts give you a way to frame the world around you. It gives you perspective. It helps you understand the experiences of people around you and translate it.

IDS: So your work has an emphasis on collaboration, right? So what’s the importance of making sure campus arts organizations are collaborating?

O'Leary: Collaboration brings about innovation. By bringing together all these different moving pieces, you create something new. And I think creating synergy around the strength of these different organizations can result in ideas, plans and programs that no one of these organizations could have done just on their own.

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