LOUISVILLE — Long before Kim Baker became the leader of Kentucky's biggest arts venue, she was an aspiring 16-year-old flutist studying at the Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts.
In her new role as president of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, the University of Kentucky graduate now oversees what is now officially called the Kentucky Center Governor's School for the Arts and numerous other programs run by the downtown Louisville organization.
She also oversees four theaters, including the Kentucky's largest, along with about 100 employees, 500 volunteers, and a calendar of 1,500 events that include everything from a children's production of Charlotte's Web to a performance from the Israeli Philharomic Orchestra.
In February, the Kentucky Center's board named Baker, 43, its president, making her the youngest person to lead the nonprofit in its 30-year history. That choice is a testament to Baker's background and qualifications, but also to the idea that the Kentucky Center (and Kentucky itself, for that matter), can cultivate its own leaders in the arts.
Baker grew up in Louisville and graduated from UK's arts administration program. She worked at UK's Singletary Center for the Arts in Lexington before moving back home. A married mother of three daughters, Baker has spent the past 14 years with the Kentucky Center, working in programming and communications.
In a recent conversation, Baker talked about the role the Kentucky Center plays in the artistic life of the commonwealth and how her own history with the arts informs her decisions about the center's future.
Question: You went to UK on a flute scholarship with the idea of being a musician. And you were good. What changed for you?
Answer: I love music, but I just realized that I didn't want to live in a practice room, which is basically what you have to do if you want to be a professional musician. I'm not that person. And figuring that out was actually a relief.
Plus, I love other forms of art, too — theater and writing and dance — and I realized that there might be a way for me to love all those things and to help other people enjoy them, too.
Q: But what happens to the artistic impulse that led you to want to be an artist in the first place? Does the center itself become the outlet for that?
A: In a way, I guess that's true. You just kind of shift from thinking about your own self-expression to thinking about facilitating that process for other artists.
And it's different, but it can be really satisfying.
When you're an artist, especially a performer, you're trying to create an experience for your audience, and that is the same approach we take to programming a season of shows. We want to create memorable experiences for the audiences who come to the Kentucky Center to see a performance, whether it's a touring Broadway production of The Lion King or the Louisville Ballet debuting a brand-new work.
Q: What's the center's relationship with the arts community outside of Louisville?
A: It's vital. The Kentucky Center's original purpose was to help define and celebrate Kentucky's arts and culture. We want to be a gathering point for the arts community, as well as a catalyst for arts innovation for the state as a whole.
To make that happen, we bring world-class artists and performers from around the world, literally, here to Kentucky. We also want to do everything we can to showcase the amazing artists who live and work here.
Either way, our hope is that people who buy a ticket to shows on our stages will get their money's worth and also go home inspired.
Q: You said you want to be a "catalyst for arts innovation." How do you do that?
A: A big part of that is through our Education and Community Arts programs, including GSA, which brings young artists from all over the state together for three weeks of study — for free.
With our Arts in Healing program, we're bringing artists into health care facilities to work with patients and seeing good things happen there. We'd like to take that statewide.
We're working with the Kentucky Arts Council and other venues around the state — and there are some great ones — and partnerships to strengthen the arts in their communities.
We also do training sessions for Kentucky teachers to help them develop strategies for using the arts in the classroom to help teach subjects beyond the arts like history and literacy and world languages.
In addition, we're working to reach out to people across the state; I've worked to raise my own and the center's social media presence. We want to hear from people; we want everyone in Kentucky to understand that this is your center for the performing arts.
Q: When was the last time you picked up your flute?
A: A few weeks ago. My daughter — the 6-year-old — is learning to play the violin. We had a little jam session. We played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
Graham Shelby, a writer who grew up in Lexington and lives in Louisville, was a classmate of Baker during the 1987 session of the Governor's School for the Arts. He can be reached through his website, Grahamshelby.com.