Like many cultural organizations across Minnesota, Great River Arts (GRA) in Little Falls is doing its best to reopen to the public and bring back popular events. Two new faces to greet visitors at GRA are Executive Director Mike Worcester and Retail and Volunteer Coordinator Carlie Mertens.
Worcester started working at GRA May 5, and has a long background of working in local history, museums and non-profit administration management. He holds a bachelor’s degree in American history from Minnesota State University in Moorhead and a master’s degree in public history from St. Cloud State University.
After he graduated from the St. Cloud University in 1993, he was hired as the director of the local museum in Cokato, where he worked for 26 years. Worcester said that after he moved to Little Falls in 2018, he continued to commute to Cokato, but eventually the drive became too much. It is about 70 miles to Cokato, one way, from Little Falls.
Executive Director Mike Worcester, left, and Retail and Volunteer Coordinator Carlie Mertens enjoy sharing art, history and culture with visit…
Worcester then worked as an interpreter at Charles Lindbergh House and Museum in Little Falls. He also did some contracted work with the Morrison County Historical Society. In addition, he started working part-time as a delivery driver for Domino’s in Little Falls.
Worcester’s interest in history happened somewhat by chance. During his high school years, he discovered he was really good at social studies, but since he wasn’t sure that was a field a person could make a living in, he pursued computer science instead.
“I quickly realized that wasn’t what I wanted to pursue. I shifted gears, got a degree in history and found out I really liked doing that work and followed up with the museum/history degree,” he said.
Worcester said that while people who enter into the history field often specializes in one time period or era, people in public history don’t necessarily have a specialized area of study.
“Our goal is to bring history to people. Not to teach it in the traditional sense, but to bring it to a larger population. From that standpoint, we take what is out there, distill it down and help people understand it better. It is broader than the normal classroom,” he said.
Although Worcester, who grew up in Walker, is not native to Little Falls, a few generations before him lived in Morrison County. His great-great-grandparents, Angus and Mary Kennedy lived in Randall and in Little Falls. While Angus died in 1925, Mary died a few years before in 1919.
One great interest Worcester has with direct ties to Little Falls is the former Kiewel Brewing Company. Last year, as he was furloughed from his work for cultural organizations due to the pandemic, he had time to finish a research paper on the brewing history in Minnesota and how counties were able to restrict the sale of alcohol.
“Morrison County never did that, but in Minnesota, for close to half a century, that was allowed by state law,” he said.
Worcester will be presenting his research paper at a couple of conferences in August and September, he said.
As executive director at GRA, Worcester said he plans to continue to make GRA an integral part of the cultural scene in the community.
“My observation as only a recent resident of the community is that this community has tremendous wealth of cultural organizations that have done fantastic work over the years. I can only hope I can continue that work,” he said.
When Worcester isn’t working, he enjoys reading non-fiction books and baseball. He has been big Minnesota Twins fan since he was a kid, Worcester said.
Mertens started working at GRA, April 1. After she graduated from University of Minnesota in Duluth in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in English and minors in political science and psychology, the pandemic kind of put a halt to her plans, she said. At the same time, it brought her home to the city by the Mississippi River where she grew up.
“I have a lot of family in the area, so it’s kind of perfect, too,” she said.
Mertens said her passion for art started during her high school years. While she doesn’t consider herself as gifted and talented as several of her friends, she often joined them in various art classes.
“They just kind of got me into it. They are so gifted and talented, but I got it from watching them doing it and seeing how much they love doing it,” she said.
One of her friends, Hannah Moller, was also an intern at GRA a couple of years ago.
Although Mertens is only a few months into her job at GRA, she loves what it represents and the art that is featured.
“I love the artists, seeing all that they create and seeing people come in here to appreciate it,” she said.
Through her job, Mertens also gets a chance to learn more about the artists, where they’re from, help create newsletters and more. In many instances, she is also the first face people see when they visit the gallery.
Mertens said that when people visit GRA, they can expect her to be ready to answer any questions they may have. She encourages people to stop by the gallery and enjoy the art on the walls. “It’s free. Come and visit. I want them to know that there is a friendly face, ready to greet them, if they want to check us out,” she said.
In her spare time, Mertens likes to read all genres with young adult being her favorite. She also enjoys spending time with family, friends and her four dogs and two cats, as well as writing short stories.