The Long Center President and CEO Cory Baker shares her journey into the world of the arts, how the iconic 10-year-old institution has become a staple of Austin life and what the next decade holds.
By Cory Baker, Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro
My parents always instilled within me a love for the visual arts, but it wasn’t until junior high that I became truly interested in live theater when my father took me to the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. It wasn’t my first theatrical experience; I had seen “Cats” on a field trip and, of course, loved “The Nutcracker,” but this was the experience that impacted me most and fundamentally altered my view of live arts, sending me on the journey that ultimately would lead to The Long Center.
I anticipated going to one of the large, high-production theaters downtown where the big musicals and national tours played. Instead, we were led to a small black-box theater that probably only held about 50 people on folding chairs—far from the giant light trusses and expansive auditoriums where I had been before. This space, and my experience there, was the one that changed my view of the arts. Until that time, I had understood that seeing shows and going to the theater was about entertainment, the spectacle of it all. But this was different and new. It was emotional, direct and slightly uncomfortable—a raw experience—and walking out, I felt as if I had bonded with this small group of strangers. I knew then that I wanted to seek out and be a part of more experiences exactly like this.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t gravitate to being in the spotlight. I am not one to be alone center stage or to emote in front of a hushed crowd, but that only underscores my passion for the performing arts. I can perform and participate and be a champion of these arts—as a viewer, supporter, professional in the field and now as the CEO of a world-class performing-arts center.
In college, I studied sociology and religious studies, and people often ask me how I went from getting degrees in these areas to working in the field of arts and culture. Despite the question marks, to me, this transition isn’t a stretch at all. At their core, each of these disciplines shares the common threads of humanity: culture, community, shared experiences and beliefs. Connecting is what this is all about, whether you’re in a 2,500-seat theater, an intimate black box, a place of worship or a neighborhood coffee shop.
And now more than ever before, we have a greater need for that sense of shared experience, a non-digital space for people to come together to get out of our separate bubbles, reconnect with our neighbors and discover something new with someone new. This is what is at the core of The Long Center as well. From its inception in 1959 as a municipal auditorium, The Long Center has always been envisioned as a hub for community life, accessible to every Austinite. Our community and its needs are what inspire me, and as we end our 10th year as a performing-arts center and head into our 60th year as an iconic Austin structure, we are recommitting to that critical mission.
We’re broadening what others think the performing arts ought to be. Throughout everything we’ve learned in the past year, we’re looking to redefine The Long Center to be a true gathering place, a place to bring friends and family to see a show, enjoy a free event on the lawn and take a picture on our terrace with the best view of the city. This is our opportunity to build a community space based on our shared experiences and inspirations, physically and philosophically, inside and out.
But beyond the arts and as 2018 draws to a close, I am so excited to be at the venue whose charge is to preserve Austin culture. Austinites love being Austinites, and we’re here for a reason. The Long Center is here too, and there is a soul to this city that we all believe in and care about maintaining. And I can’t wait to see where the next 10 years take us together.