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By Tom Dirkin
Julie Baker charts a new course
Former 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.

Photo by Kim Sayre
“Every eight to 10 years I kind of need to change,” Julie Baker said of her decision to leave The Center for the Arts.