Second responders: Julie Baker, executive director of California Arts Advocates and statewide nonprofit Californians for the Arts, talks situation and solutions moving forward for arts communities
Special to Prospector
Julie Baker comes to Nevada County by way of New York City where she worked for several prominent art galleries as well as Christie’s auction house before taking the helm of her family’s marketing agency. She moved to her husband’s hometown of Nevada City to raise her family in the late 1990s, first working for a web development company and then opening her own art gallery in 2001. Later, she accepted the executive director position at The Center for the Arts which she held for eight years, before leaving in 2017 to pursue her passion of arts advocacy. Currently she is the executive director of California Arts Advocates and for the statewide nonprofit Californians for the Arts, working to protect arts funding across the state. In a recent conversation, I interviewed Julie to get a better picture of the work the agencies are doing and why funding the arts is still important to our communities.
Hollie Grimaldi Flores: How did your background prepare you for the job you have today?
Julie Baker: I had been on the board of Californians for the Arts and California Arts Advocates for about four years and on a local level, I was known as an arts advocate in that I was always talking about the impact and value of what the arts bring to Nevada County. Formally that meant I would go in front of Grass Valley City Council and try to illustrate to them that we (The Center For the Arts) were making a huge impact on the economy for the downtown and therefore we should be looked at as an economic partner to the city and that they should invest in us. That is essentially what advocacy for the arts is trying to do — to illustrate the impact and then also receive resources and funding.
HGF: What is your role today?
JB: I was hired initially to rebuild the organization to take it to the next level. Then, at the same time, I was learning and immersing myself in how legislative politics works. I had never really done that and there was a lot of learning for me. I was always interested in politics but I had never done a lot of meeting with elected officials, working directly on legislations, writing legislation, working on policy initiatives, so there was really a lot of learning for me. Last year was my first full legislative session where I was active and working directly with our lobbyists and then this year, is obviously extremely different.
HGF: How does one advocate for money for the arts in the current environment?
JB: I have to say with everything that is going on in the world, there can be moments when it feels like our civic engagements don’t make any difference, but I can attest to the fact that it does make a difference.
If we organize and if we are consistent and if we are loud and if we are strategic and if we are mindful of what all of the pieces that have to be in place for systemic change to happen, I think we can see that difference. My role is making sure that arts and culture are at the table, that we are part of the dialogue and presenting ways that we can provide solutions. I work on state politics primarily, so asking so what are some of the ways that artists and culture workers, art organizations, nonprofit organizations — what can they bring to helping to eradicate homelessness, how do they deal with racism and anti-racism practices, how can we be part of mental health strategies, public health strategies and those of us who are engaged in the arts, we know that is what the arts bring. We look to the arts to be hopeful, to have an expression of our own identities, to give us sometimes a distraction, to feel better for a moment or maybe something is explained that helps engage in empathy or bringing the community together. All of those things have tremendous value but what has happened for the arts is that we are often seen as something that is nice to have but not necessary and now our job is to show this is necessary. This is essential.
HGF: Why do we need art?
JB: When we have arts in our schools and even arts in our prisons — which we have, for example, in every state prison in California — there are ways the arts can help provide a sense of self and a voice for people and a sense of community. Homelessness is often related to mental health issues, it’s related to drug addiction and it’s related to poverty and it’s also related to inequity in terms of access to resources and I think when you intersect art into a solution — a social safety net solution — it’s a piece of how we can provide solutions. It’s not the only piece. But you want to make sure there are artists and people who can teach folks how to have their own voice and how to express themselves which is what art can do and an artist can do that for you that will give people a sense of self.
A real good example of that is a group called Voices of City Choir. They are in San Diego and two women started it. There are 200 homeless people in the choir. From that they got the sense that they are part of something. Somebody cares about me. I have a voice. That kind of program could be modeled throughout the state. Several years ago, at the Center for the Arts we got a grant to teach singing to those who might not be able to afford it that Lorraine Gervais ran. We reached out to Hospitality House and other groups in town to welcome them and at the same time we couldn’t restrict people who could afford it, so we got a wide spectrum of the population. That was an unintended, but wonderful aspect of that program. We had a homeless person sitting next to a lawyer, each struggling to learn the same chord. How can we support each other to be successful? So that is a good example of a local program and how arts can be part of the solution to get people off the street and into a home.
HGF: Are there other programs in the works?
JB: There is a theory that you do housing first — make sure people have a place to live and then you provide services. But if you give people a place to live, what is going to give them the hope that will change their lives to help them continue living in a home? Some of it is access to arts programs to give them a better sense of self, a sense of being a part of something and finding their voice. I think that is a lot of what arts do. We have been using a phrase that has been going around, that artists are second responders. We aren’t going into burning buildings and saving lives, but — responders rebuild lives, and that is functionally what arts engagement strategies utilizing artists do.
HGF: What can people do to help support the arts, even in these times?
JB: I encourage people to get involved. Raising our voices and being consistent and looking for positive change solutions that will actually create a healthier society it can be effective but we have to be consistent and we have to organize and we have to show up.
So, if arts and culture is something you feel can make a difference in people’s lives and in our communities, not just from an economic standpoint — although that is a big piece of our argument that we are important small businesses and we are essential workers in our communities. We are not just providing entertainment. We are doing things that are really important to our communities. If you believe that is true, we encourage people to get engaged, whether that is locally with the Nevada County Arts Council or the state level with Californians for the Arts.
HG: Is there action people can take?
JB: We have a section on our website: http://www.californiansforthearts.org. We have a very easy template to write to our local representatives. It is going to be a long haul. This is just the beginning. We are looking at a year from now before we will have large gatherings. If we want to make sure that doesn’t get decimated, there has to be subsidies, some mechanism for relief for our industry, so we have to make sure we are representing that voice and that we are part of the solution. We don’t just want money to keep our doors closed.
How can you pivot your business model right now, your offerings, your services? What can you do to offer more arts engagement cross sector work with other agencies in the community in Nevada County, specifically Hospitality House, The Friendship Club, Child Advocates or even the Food Bank, where can we intersect to be part of these sectors and be recognized for that type of work. That is how we can show our value.
Hollie Grimaldi Flores is a Nevada County resident and freelance writer for hire. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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