Our View: Bravo, Julie Baker! Bravo!
August 11, 2017
Take a bow, Julie Baker. You deserve it.
This week's news that the Center for the Arts executive director was stepping down drew plenty of praise for her efforts, and for good reason.
Baker deserves a standing ovation for her work, not only in taking the Center to new heights, but also for her steadfast support for the arts and the western Nevada County community in general.
Her eight-year tenure essentially encompassed half the existence of the Center's history, surpassing the stints of her predecessors both in length and in the organization's growth. Taking the reins in 2009, she faced a task of turning around declining membership and ticket sales, due largely to a recession that ravaged our economy. For a community losing jobs by the dozens, with longtime businesses closing its doors, discretionary spending on entertainment seemed an afterthought.
In fact, it was the tanking economy that led her to close the doors of an art gallery in New York and eventually walk through an open door at the Center for the Arts.
"The day I opened the space in New York City was the day Lehman Brothers closed and the stock market plunged," Baker said.
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After returning to the tech sector for a short stint, she seized the opportunity to lead the Center, though it was in financial straits at the time. Her experience in marketing served the Center from the get-go, as she and staff sought to sell enough tickets to cover the cost of booking a high-priced Smothers Brothers show. She said she remembers popping a bottle of champagne after the team pulled off a sell-out. It was that success, and some advice she took from the book "The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations," that provided her with a light-bulb moment that led the Center in a new direction.
"The book says the worst thing you can do with a nonprofit (organization) is to cut back on program," she said. "Doing that can mean there's not a value for the community to support."
Instead, the success of the Smothers Brothers showed her there was an appetite here for more well-known headliner acts. The Center leveraged both professional and personal relationships to connect with talent agencies and artists they represent. Raising ticket prices to cover the cost of such acts, and the inclusion of even higher-priced VIP opportunities, might have seemed counter-intuitive in a struggling economy but seats filled fast. Locals and out-of-towners alike showed they would turn out for the likes of the Kingsman Trio, David Crosby and Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal and Ani DiFranco. Welcoming the opportunity to collaborate with other nonprofits, the Center also teamed up with the Bear Yuba Land Trust for its annual fundraiser to bring big names like Aaron Neville, Allan Toussaint and Willie Nelson to town.
It didn't take long to see results in the beefed-up programming, as by her second year of leadership the Center ended up in the black for the first time in its history. And the Center continues to serve as a rising tide to lift a whole lot of boats in western county, for our business, nonprofit and government sectors. The Center for the Arts no doubt is a key cog in our community — an actual economic engine that brings folks to town — and certainly played a role in Grass Valley and Nevada City recently being designated as one of the state's new cultural districts.
It also offers some favorite annual events, such as "Dancing With Our Stars," which will be presented for a fifth year this month. WorldFest, which just wrapped up its third year as a Center for the Arts event, is a four-day celebration of music from around the globe. For its success, Baker and the Center were honored last year with the Music Innovation Award at Fest Forums in Santa Barbara, raising the profile of WorldFest, the Center for the Arts and our community.
Of course, the entertainment industry isn't always roses and calls for an encore, as witnessed earlier this year with the whole Kathy Griffin controversy. But in times of choppy seas, you need a steady hand at the helm and Baker and her staff weathered that storm well.
Western Nevada County has been fortunate to have had Baker in this role, and we are glad to hear she'll remain involved with the Center on a consulting basis, helping to launch the organization's coming capital campaign and making for a smooth transition to a new director.
Meanwhile, we encourage the community to offer her a round of applause as she steps away from her director's role in September.
So bravo, Julie Baker! We look forward to your next act.
The weekly Our View column represents the viewpoint of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.