by Hannah Morrow
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
President and CEO, Long Center
“Keep Austin Weird.” The slogan that has become synonymous with our city was born in 2000, inspired by a comment made by librarian Red Wassenich while giving a pledge to KOOP Radio. It’s a reference to the creativity and funk that accumulated in the capital city through the ’70s and ’80s, as well as an urging to support local businesses. Jump forward to 2018 and the Google machine chock-full of think pieces wondering if Austin is outgrowing its weirdness.
“People say we need to keep Austin’s culture,” says Cory Baker, president and CEO of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary on Riverside Drive this year. “Maybe they can’t put their finger on what that means, but they know we have to keep it. Our culture and arts are still evolving, and just like any other infrastructure, there are going to be growing pains. But it’s a great opportunity to ask as a community, Who are we? And if these things are important to who we are, how are we adjusting for artists?”
Baker’s path to a career in the arts reads as those stories usually do: a little scattered. Following high school in her home town of Philadelphia, Baker landed in Phoenix, where she opened a skate shop, Sub Society, before attending Arizona State University. She says she always held an interest in the arts, both in practice and appreciation, while she double majored in sociology and religion studies. After graduation, she continued working at her shop, and eventually took an interview at the Scottsdale Cultural Council. That interview, she says, would change her life.
“I always imagined an audience coordinator position — getting out of the community and finding out how to connect — but I didn’t know this was a career. It wasn’t a track in college,” says Baker. Her interviewer heard her passion and asked her to write a job description to take to the executive staff. With that acceptance, she began her tenure with the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Over the next 16 years, Baker would grow to become the director of the center, developing new programming and initiatives. “To this day, I think it was the best way to get into the field. The focus was, from the first day, all about bringing the community to the artist,” says Baker.
In 2015, a position at the Long Center fell into her lap: vice president of programming and production. She’d been to Austin before — her sister lives here — and the city was a good fit for what she wanted out of the future. “It’s kind of funny when you start looking around and see what institutions you’d want to work in and what cities you want to raise a family in,” she says. “Austin was on the short list for both.” She joined the Long Center that fall, but six months later a shake-up in the organization led her to become CEO.
Nearing the Long Center’s 10-year anniversary, Baker presided over an intensive rebranding process. Its earliest iteration, the Municipal Auditorium, opened in 1959 before getting reinvented in 2008. “The organization was at a critical crossroads. In the first eight years, the team had learned a lot but didn’t have the magic formula,” says Baker. A population boom had left Austin’s needs and wants transformed. She says serving the city was a little like “shooting at a moving target.” Additionally, as a newer Austinite herself, Baker was thoughtful about the footprint her position enables her to leave on Austin.
“My passions — sociology, community — are about learning what role the arts play in preserving the soul of Austin,” says Baker. The rebranding has focused on program diversity, community outreach and events, and a usurping commitment to the live arts. “All Austinites deserve access to world-class culture.”
“The most critical thing for me and the Long Center is how we can best support the amazing ecology that already exists in Austin. It’s an art lover’s town. There is so much going on. Audiences are sophisticated and smart; they’re adventurous and open-minded. I mean,” she says with a laugh, “people will go out on Tuesdays!”