The Union Newspaper
Julie Baker recognized by Nevada County Arts Council, February 7, 2018

Julie Baker was the first recipient of the Nevada County Arts Council's Peggy Levine Arts and Community Service Award. Pictured from left are Eliza Tudor, executive director of the Nevada County Arts Council; Jon Blinder, president; Julie Baker, and Howard Levine, Grass Valley city councilman. Baker was chosen due to her efforts throughout the years with the Center for the Arts as well as her work with Eliza Tudor and Howard Levine for Nevada County's recent designation as a California Cultural District by the California Arts Council.


Our View: Bravo, Julie Baker! Bravo!
The Union Editorial Board, 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.

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.  http://www.theunion.com/opinion/our-view-bravo-julie-baker-bravo/

Nevada City Advocate, November 2017
Julie Baker charts a new course:

Center For The Arts director strikes out on her own

“I never thought I’d be there that long,” a relaxed Julie Baker revealed in an October interview with the Advocate.

“It was quite a ride,” said the former executive director of The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley. During her tenure, Baker artfully turned around a failing nonprofit organization into a thriving performing arts enterprise.  She and her team attracted the likes of Willie Nelson, Amy Grant, Graham Nash, Lily Tomlin, Michael Franti and WorldFest. At 150 shows a year, “We brought everything. We brought pretty radical stuff. We were really trying to serve the whole community from conservative to liberal whatever,” Baker said.

After her eight-year run, Baker stepped down Sept. 15 to start her own business, Julie Baker Projects. “Every eight to 10 years I kind of need to change,” she explained. Operating out of her comfortable home office near Nevada City, Baker said she kept the name of her business deliberately vague, because, “There’s just a whole wide variety of things that I can do.” Kicked back in her office chair, she said, “I hope I can pick and choose.” So far, she’s picked two singers – local Lorraine Gervais and New Yorker Eva Salina – and the Sacramento Arts and Business Council.

After years of high-pressure, high-intensity and highly successful work, Baker said she has no regrets about leaving CFTA. “I feel good. It’s weird. There are definitely moments when it’s like losing a limb or something.” But, “It’s what I wanted.”
Gazing out her office window at her idyllic surroundings, she smiled, “I want to work smarter, not … more.”

A date with destiny

Prior to taking over CFTA in 2009, Baker had owned Julie Baker Fine Arts. For the previous 10 years, she curated art in her galleries in Nevada City and New York City, her hometown. The Great Recession of 2008 devastated her art gallery business. “It was just terrible, nobody bought anything,” she said. “So, I closed the gallery.

“I could have stayed with the gallery and tried to build it again, but I’d done it for almost 10 years and I was ready for something new,” she said. “I need new rounds of creativity all the time. That’s sort of who I am,” she added.

Baker reported that she came to The Center for the Arts through a combination of factors and people, including her husband, Richard Baker. He was president of the board of directors of CFTA at the time. Acting executive director Pam Comstock wanted to leave and, “I was sort of young and foolish. I said ‘I’ll do it, if you would consider me,’ “Baker recalled.

The board didn’t have the time nor money to do a national executive search, so Richard Baker resigned from the board, and in June 2009 Baker was hired as interim executive director. Although she had no real-world experience with nonprofits or the performing arts, Baker used her business expertise, her deep love of the arts, and her native ability to instinctively master something she’s never done before. “I just fit in,” smiled Baker, basking in her sunlit office. She doesn’t remember when, or even if, her job was ever made permanent.

Baker was born into her family’s art-oriented advertising and marketing business in New York City. She credited that cosmopolitan background for guiding her success at the center.

Because Grass Valley is a “small, white, rural community, I felt a real responsibility to bring diversity and color and culture to this town,” she said. “It almost felt like what I was destined to do.”

Looking ahead

“You get to a point in your life – I’m 50 – when you know what you’re good at,” Baker said. “My tagline is ‘Connecting the Dots,’ “ she said. “I help create relationships. I help build things. I am solution-oriented.” “I’m not open to submissions necessarily, but I’m certainly looking at building a roster,” she revealed. “I’m also looking at doing programming, whether it’s with other venues or actually being a promoter myself – and presenting shows both here and on the East Coast near Woodstock,” she said.

Baker’s family owns a home in Woodstock in upstate New York. Baker said she is talking to a number of different cities about “cultural planning, cultural vibrancy and how to implement that through the lens of economic development.” Furthermore, “I certainly can do interim nonprofit management. I can walk into a nonprofit and help them to look at ways to build revenue,” she asserted.

In a time when there are “no jobs” (she looked), Julie Baker is confident she can make a go of her new enterprise: “I believe enough in myself to know that if I start to put myself out there, things will come. The next great opportunity, the new phase is just around the corner.”

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada County. Contact him at tdurkin@vfr.net or www.tomdurkin-writer.net.

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.


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.”


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.


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.


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 LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.