Photo by Leah Dienes.
by Scott Dowd
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The Kentucky Center is wrapping-up its 30th anniversary season with a strategic plan to move the organization forward. Leading those efforts is Kim Baker, the recently named President, who was promoted from her role as Senior Vice President of External Affairs to succeed Stephen Klein. Ms. Baker has a long history with The Kentucky Center that goes back to its tenth anniversary season. True to form, she hit the ground at full gallop. On the day we spoke, she was en route to another meeting about the ways in which she and her staff will expand the reach of The Kentucky Center.
Kim Baker: It’s nice to be able to put into practice some of the things I’ve thought about through the years. Now I won’t have any excuses. I can’t say “Oh, I wish that would happen” or “Why aren’t we focusing on this?”
Scott Dowd: I remember the day Tim King introduced you as assistant manager of the Louisville Gardens!
KB: That was about 1995, but my first job was actually at The Kentucky Center in December of 1992. It was a great time to be there. We had the giant Christmas tree, and the Louisville Ballet was performing Alun Jones’s The Nutcracker. There were holiday concerts in the lobby at every performance – it was an absolutely magical time!
SD: The Kentucky Center was getting ready for its tenth anniversary celebration.
KB: I was really involved in planning the big celebration that took place that next summer.
SD: So you have been with The Kentucky Center for most of its life.
KB: I did leave for a little while, but I have been here for most of the past two decades.
SD: Has the mission of The Kentucky Center changed over the years?
KB: There have been a lot of cosmetic adjustments over the years and some programs are different, but our mission has never changed. We exist to provide world-class entertainment to the Commonwealth and to the region. The Kentucky Center has always tried to balance what the resident companies produced or presented to ensure that people of the region have an opportunity for the broadest cultural experiences we can provide. The programming focus has remained constant throughout my association with The Center, although the particular programs have changed over the years to reflect the interests of our constituency. Our other focus is, naturally, on education.
SD: You say “naturally,” but can you explain why education is such an important facet of The Kentucky Center’s mission?
KB: We want the people of Kentucky and the region to develop a life-long relationship with the arts. No matter who you are or where you are, The Center wants to bring some form of arts experience to you. That vision has been there since the beginning, and over the decades we have been able to expand some of the programs to serve people in their communities. We are truly a statewide organization.
SD: Last month I spoke with Bruce Simpson of the Louisville Ballet and he talked about the intertwining of education in everything the Company does.
KB: That makes sense. Education is a part of everything that happens at The Kentucky Center. If we aren’t growing the next generation of arts lovers and artists, we’re not ensuring our future. As we plan our outreach and what we bring to the stage, there is a lot of focus on its educational aspects. For instance, we just brought in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and we made sure that the Youth Performing Arts School and Louisville Youth Orchestra had an opportunity to attend. We had an exciting bit of serendipity not too long ago when the Canadian Brass came to play. One of the trumpeters is an alumnus of the Governor’s School for the Arts, and he did a lecture/demonstration for alumni of the Governor’s School and YPAS students.
SD: Tell me about ArtsReach.
KB: ArtsReach is a program that began in 1991 through the community centers. We offer studio programs at the community centers in dance, violin and the visual arts. The Center and all of the resident companies offer $3 tickets to ensure that families in these communities have access to the arts. Every year we celebrate the program with a fantastic event called “Keepers of the Dream” intended to keep Dr. King’s vision alive and show that it is being realized here.
SD: Even before The Kentucky Center opened in 1983, it took a lot of work to secure the political will from Frankfort that was needed. The Commonwealth, at that time, made a strong commitment to operations at The Center. Has the nature of that relationship changed at all?
KB: It really hasn’t. The Commonwealth owns this facility and we are part of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. Now as then our operating board is politically appointed to ensure that this is not just an arts center for Louisville. We are regionally focused. The arts are a big driver in terms of economic development and tourism, and we connect with many different kinds of people across the country and around the world. The operational funding from the Commonwealth remains at approximately the same level as 1983 – we are expected to be self-sufficient. But there has always been a commitment to maintain the facility. In fact, we just received funding to replace our roof.
SD: You mentioned the Governor’s School. How is that program going?
KB: It really needs to double in size at this point to serve all the young artists who deserve to be part of it. But the Governor has priorities, as we all do, and we’re working to increase the scope of the program within the framework of state-wide budget considerations. Up to 50 new students have been added in this last state budget cycle.
SD: What are some of the other outreach programs The Kentucky Center conducts?
KB: We have a relationship with the State of Kentucky’s Department of Education called the Academies for Arts Integration. This is teacher training and professional development for teachers from all over the Commonwealth. The training gives them ideas about different ways they can integrate various art forms into the curriculum. We also have a statewide version of our local ArtsReach program to provide access.
SD: You mentioned the resident companies and, happily, the Louisville Orchestra is back and performing again. How is the stability of the arts community from your perspective?
KB: All of the resident companies are very important to the artistic vitality of the region. It’s a big part of what makes our arts scene authentic. We are always concerned with the health of the resident companies because of the intimate nature of our partnership. All ships rise when the arts community is healthy, so we have a strong commitment to helping them achieve success. The PNC Broadway in Louisville series continues to bring in the big blockbuster shows, and they do a lot for all of the performers at The Center.
SD: Directly or indirectly?
KB: Both. They are our largest resident company in terms of revenue, and that helps everyone. We are very excited about the Louisville Orchestra and working with the new leadership there – executive director Andrew Kipe and music director Teddy Abrams. The musicians seem to be excited about the future. I think we are in for some very interesting and innovative programming, and we are looking forward to assisting them to realize their vision. You mentioned Louisville Ballet earlier, and they are also in transition. Bruce Simpson is an amazing artistic director, and I think the quality of performances has been really superb under his leadership. The board will have to be very thoughtful about who they bring in to succeed Bruce, so I am anxious to see the direction they take. StageOne had a world premiere this year and now they are preparing for their summer classes as usual. Peter Holloway is generating lots of energy and producing a lot of excitement. David Roth and Kentucky Opera have had a tremendous success story at the Brown Theatre, which The Kentucky Center manages. He has worked to broaden the patron demographic and is now engaging a more youthful audience.
SD: Both The Brown and Whitney Hall have undergone major renovation in the past few years. Are all of those projects complete at this point?
KB: The Whitney is up and finished. It is working just as we hoped it would. The Brown is an older theatre and there are many things that still could and need to be done, but we will need to secure the funding first to ensure that those things are able to happen. The Fund for the Arts is serious about making The Brown a fantastic opera house and theatre for the community. The Center is working hand-in-hand with the Fund to make that a reality. I don’t know that it ever really ends, to be honest with you. There will always be new technology coming along and ways that we will find to improve the experience for audiences and provide better tools to the artists, so we will never really stop. Right now the $9 million renovation in Whitney Hall is complete, but that just means it’s time to start working toward the next need.
SD: Now that you are leading The Kentucky Center, what are some of the areas you want to emphasize? What opportunities have you identified?
KB: I’ve been joking that everything has been running so well I won’t change a thing. But I think there is a lot The Center can do to grow. We are accomplished and proven facility managers. We are educational leaders, and there really is a lot The Center can do, even outside our footprint, to broaden our reach. I would really like to see us grow in that way. If there is a new facility opening or a festival being created in Louisville, The Center needs to be a part of it. That is our expertise, and it’s not unusual for Centers across the country to manage all kinds of facilities. There are some that run hotels, some operate parks, others oversee programming in parks. Many are involved in their community’s public art projects. I think that is where I would really like to see us grow. I want people to recognize the leadership we can provide and capitalize on the expertise of our staff.
SD: The Arts in Healing program is already accomplishing some of those goals. Will that be expanded?
KB: That is one of our most sought-after programs because there is nothing like it. The expertise it takes on the part of an artist to go into a place of healing, whether it is a hospital or rehab facility, really requires the development of a whole new skill set. But it makes such an impact on patients, their families and the healthcare workers. We are working on a strategic plan right now and it may well be the next program we expand statewide. But there is still a lot left to do before that happens.
SD: Of course, to make anything happen, as you have mentioned, the funding must be available. The Center gets some money from the state to maintain the facilities; you have income from ticket sales. But what drives the ship, and can you make sure funding is there for these projects?
KB: That begins at the outset. It isn’t enough to have a good idea: a program has to be appreciated and needed first. Then it has to be funded. If the need and desire exist in the community, then the funding will come. One of our original funders for Arts in Healing was Humana. We have gotten generous grants from the Crusade for Children, and there are a number of potential funders who have expressed interest in the program because of its impact. In general, I feel that if the program is relevant and dynamic, the funding and ticket sales will follow. Our earned income and our donations will continue to rise as people see the great work we are doing. Part of my job is to make sure the community recognizes that The Kentucky Center has the capability to do a lot more in Louisville and the state and to shine the beacon on some of those pathways.
SD: You have been in communications a long time. It seems like this is right in your wheelhouse.
KB: We are actually introducing a new campaign that will touch the entire region and help people understand that The Kentucky Center is more than a building.
SD: What are some of the opportunities available for people who want to be involved in the expanded mission?
KB: You know we have a tremendous volunteer base that goes beyond ushers and ticket takers. We have volunteers who help us in the office and volunteers who help out in the state. I believe the current number is just over six hundred people volunteering on behalf of The Kentucky Center and our mission. Of course, we can always use corporate and individual financial support. We have a state-appointed board, but we also have an endowment board. People also help when they buy tickets and attend events. They then tell people about the experience and that outreach is the most valuable tool we have. When a friend or peer invites another person to experience something at The Kentucky Center, it is more effective than any ad we can produce. We need to make people aware of the work being done in the community. It surprises me that there are still people who have never heard of the Governor’s School for the Arts. That is something that can be life-changing for a young person.
SD: Many people don’t realize that they can become a member of The Center.
KB: Membership starts at $100 a year and comes with a number of benefits. We have moved away from subscriptions for Kentucky Center events and replaced them with the idea of membership.
SD: What are some of the benefits?
KB: Membership gets you early buying opportunities, discounts, priority seating and access to some of the outreach opportunities that happen. The Idea Festival and Thunder at The Center, which was spectacular again this year, are just a couple of the kind of events I’m talking about.
SD: Kim, you have a lot of work ahead, but I’m really glad to see you in this new role.
KB: I came to this position at an exciting time because we have started working on strategic planning and have just wrapped up the broad strategic imperatives that we’ll be following for the next five years. You and I touched on the idea of expertise in leadership and facility management. We will also be working to take the experience of everyone who comes to The Center to the next level so that every visitor feels like a welcomed guest. We know that people who come to The Center have an interest in learning more, in experiencing more and in being at The Center longer than two hours, so we want to begin to plan more things that will happen around the performances at The Center. For instance, we have a booming food culture, thanks to our restaurants and the farm-to-table movement. One of the goals from our strategic planning process is to see how The Center can be involved with them and other groups. We hope to encourage people to discover their Center. There really is so much to see and do here – from our world-class art collection to the incredible diversity of programs. We want to create opportunities for people to discover what The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts means to them.