The powerhouse players behind The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley |

The powerhouse players behind The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley

Amber Jo Manuel, Acting Executive Director and Director of Development, joined CFTA last year to lead a capital campaign tasked with raising approximately $3.6 million for extensive renovations at The Center.
Photo by Lorraine Jewett |

The recent past and near future of The Center for the Arts (CFTA) revolves around two dynamic women, each of whom has a unique vision for Grass Valley’s performing arts jewel.

Julie Baker, The Center for the Arts Executive Director for the past eight years, handed the reins to Amber Jo Manuel in September. The change at the top means both a new direction in the future while sticking to successful practices of the past.

Manuel joined The Center last year to lead a capital campaign tasked with raising approximately $3.6 million for extensive renovations at The Center.

What’s to come

Ground-breaking for the overhaul will occur next summer. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of the revamped Center at 314 W. Main Street is scheduled for 2019.

“The renovation will greatly improve the artist and audience experience by providing new seats, an open lobby, upgrades to the lighting and sound, larger bathrooms, and more green rooms,” said Manuel, who is now both Acting Executive Director and Director of Development. “It will be a dynamic and intimate performance complex that will be filled with the creative energy of the most exciting artists.”

All 300 of the antiquated 75-year-old seats will be replaced, a new HVAC system installed, bathrooms enlarged and modernized, and the entire design of The Center reconfigured with an expanded lobby, stage, and backstage.

“Currently, an artist has to walk through the lobby to get to the stage,” said Manuel. “Artists want the first time the audience sees them to be on the stage, not walking through the lobby.”

The new Center will combine floor- and retractable-seating to create flexibility.

“We’ll be able to stage an expanded range of events,” Manuel said. “It will be a unique space for event banquets for up to 300 people, cabaret performances for 300 to 400, seated concerts for up to 506, and the room to dance for more than 700.”

New leadership

Meanwhile, The Center’s Board of Directors is conducting a nation-wide search for an executive director. Manuel hopes they find the right person here at home.

“I want to become the permanent executive director,” said Manuel. “I’ll throw my hat in the ring. I think it’s an interesting time because we’re changing the venue and it’s an opportunity to look at everything The Center has done already and how can we change it to the next phase of its life.

“It’s going to be an incredible events venue that other nonprofits can use.”

She envisions The Center offering a wider range of events, including music, theater, performing arts, and fine arts.

“We’re looking at all different genres,” she said. “Our presentations have been heavily music-oriented. We want to add more ballet, resident theater programs, and other performing arts. We’ll do more education and after-school programs.

“After having been away from this community the past 17 years, The Center’s capital project was the impetus for my return last year,” said the Nevada City native. “This truly is an incredible opportunity for me to lead a crucial renovation project that will support the arts in my own hometown and allow me to lend my expertise from years of working on myriad capital projects.”

Manuel takes the helm of a performing arts center that contributes an estimated $913,950 annually to the local economy, according to the Americans for the Arts’ economic impact calculator.

Looking back

But that wasn’t the case when Baker took over in 2009.

“It was a suffering business and I helped make it successful,” said Baker. “When I got to The Center, they couldn’t afford to buy copy paper. Major donors were no longer supporting The Center, its reputation was not strong, and a lot of people didn’t understand its value.

“It was failing financially, and we were in the midst of the Great Recession.”

Baker knew that a major mistake other cultural centers make when faced with financial adversity is pulling back on programming. Instead, Baker ramped up the schedule of events. The Center now presents 150 shows every year.

“Being ‘bendy’ is critical to the job,” said Baker. “You’ve got to be flexible. It’s a high-risk business. You make a guess based on guts, mission, and what has sold in the past. But sometimes you’re completely surprised. My first show was one I inherited. It was the Smothers Brothers. It was expensive but we sold it out.”

Based on the success of the Smothers Brothers, Baker booked Chubby Checkers. The several hundred people who attended the performance labeled it a critical success, but it was a commercial disaster.

“The most important thing is to understand your own market,” Baker said. “We’ve got a lot of Baby Boomers in Nevada County. They have money and enjoy nostalgia. I thought Chubby Checkers would fit that bill. But it was the hardest sell ever! It was my first financial flop.”

Undeterred, Baker pursued big name artists that had never before considered performing in a tiny, rural town such as Grass Valley. Baker said luring iconic artists such as Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne took patience and determination.

“I had my sights set on them but it took me years to get them,” said Baker. “I knew they were slam dunks but it took years to build relationships to get the artists’ trust.”

A large part of Baker’s job was building The Center’s reputation as a venue artists would want to play.

“I got the agents, managers, and artists interested,” she said, “and the rest of the credit goes to our team and its excellent customer service. Our patrons, volunteers, sponsors, and donors made it a welcoming environment for the artists.”

When Baker started at The Center, its budget was $250,000. When she left, the budget topped $2 million.

“It was like running a start-up company,” Baker said.

Another professional success Baker cites is The Center’s acquisition of California WorldFest, a four-day music festival held in July at Nevada County Fairgrounds.

Next up for Baker

Reflecting on those and other milestones helped Baker realize it was time to move on.

“I recognized that I like to build things, be the big idea person,” she said. “I realized my job was done.”

Baker seamlessly launched Julie Baker Projects, her new venture involving programming, representing music artists, producing events, consulting with small businesses, and working with nonprofit centers that are in the shape The Center was pre-Baker.

“It’s the culmination of my 30 years of experience in business, mostly in the arts,” said Baker. “I’m looking at what’s needed and I’ll see where I land. I’m also looking forward to being at home more and spending time with my family.”

Baker will continue to support The Center as a consultant. Both Manuel and Baker are looking forward to the challenges and successes ahead.

“I have experienced first-hand how dancing, acting, singing, directing, and all forms of creative expression are crucial for not only individual growth, but for the growth of communities,” said Manuel. “Having a space dedicated to the arts is more than merely providing entertainment. It becomes a reflection of the soul of a community.”

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature, contact her at

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