Local business owner Thom Baker seeks to leave Columbia a gift when he retires. Tucked away in his equipment-lain home office, Thom Baker of...
Founder and Director, Resident Arts
Jack of all trades. Everything from big picture strategy to the nitty-gritty: implement programs, secure teaching artists, lead the after-school program, teach workshops, make studio repairs and maintenance, coordinate outreach and partnership development, board development, fundraising, marketing, bookkeeping and more.
MA in visual arts administration with a nonprofit focus from NYU, 2011, and a BFA in studio art with an emphasis in art history, theory and criticism from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2007.
My work has largely been centered around supporting the arts through community organizing and youth development, both programmatically and administratively. In 2007, right out of my undergraduate degree, I built a youth arts program from the ground up at Benton House Community Center. In 2009, I interned at a brand new organization, No Longer Empty, to help build public arts programming in empty storefronts. In 2010, I joined the Groundswell team and spent three years building their fundraising initiatives, and developed the Youth Media Council. During my graduate studies, I focused on advocacy and cultural planning. In 2013, I helped establish Brooklyn Metal Works, an art jewelry and metalsmithing makerspace, and in 2014, I founded Resident Arts.
I’ve had different mentors at each stage of my life. Perhaps the most recent one is my former supervisor at Groundswell, Sharon Polli, who taught me how to bring programming and fundraising efforts together to build large scale community-led initiatives. She was a perfectionist who was sometimes hard to work for, but who always operated with such grace under fire. I continue to draw from her lessons on diplomacy and professionalism.
That I’ve been working for six years to develop Resident Arts (even though we were only founded a year and a half ago). When I moved from Chicago to attend NYU, it was with the purpose of gaining the skills to found my own arts nonprofit. I wrote my thesis on regional cultural planning and used mid-Missouri as a model so that I could become familiar with the cultural landscape here. The classes I selected during my graduate program, and the jobs I took afterward, have guided me in developing the skills necessary to be a well-rounded director.
There are several: helping artists feel confident in their abilities to run their creative practice like a business; helping young artists realize that arts careers are diverse, dynamic, and can be sustainable; and building relationships with all the awesome people who make up Columbia’s art scene.
I’m really excited that our after-school teen artist residency has taken off this semester. We have full enrollment (10 students) and have enlisted the help of some really incredible professional artists: Frank Stack, Fran Lakatos and Monica Hand. For most of these kids, it’s their first time working in a professional artist studio and it’s their first taste of setting time aside to make art without the structure of class assignments. It’s a really strong program, and I’m excited that we’ve had such success getting it off the ground.
I have trouble operating under strict resolutions, and I tend to fail if I set myself up in this way. I find I’m more successful if I take a more flexible approach and regularly check in on the big picture. I guess my 2015 goal was to get Resident Arts’ programming going — I have definitely accomplished that. We’ve run two of the three primary programs twice (the after-school teen artist residency and professional development workshop series), and I’m working on making the emerging artist residency more appealing, to run it again in the spring. Of our secondary programs, our free career coaching has helped about half a dozen artists this year, and we’re working on gaining traction with the free critique night.
2016 is going to be a big year for me and for Resident Arts. I’ve been making lots of connections with different professionals in the city, working toward the goal of having a larger, more sustainable impact on Columbia’s citizens. There are some big ideas being tossed around, so without giving anything away, I guess I’d say my goal is to grow Resident Arts’ program capacity, as well as its revenue potential. I also plan to make more paintings.
My life is pretty satisfying right now. My one-and-a-half-year-old daughter is at a really cute/amazing/scary stage of learning to express herself, so our time together is really meaningful and memorable. At the same time, my private studio practice is valuable, because it roots me back in myself as an individual rather than a part of the family unit.
Being able to see when I’ve made a difference in someone’s life and collaborative energy.
That’s a hard one. I do lots of things that I could almost as easily be doing full-time. Personal chef or restaurant owner perhaps? I love well prepared food. Cooking is a nourishing act. When I was living in New York, it really supplanted my arts practice because we simply didn’t have enough space for me to comfortably make paintings. I have worked with friends who are private caterers and have really enjoyed that work. The entrepreneur in me likes to be her own boss, so I would probably want to run my own business in that industry as well.
I am really just getting started in Columbia. I’m on the board of the North Village Arts District, and I’ve done some volunteering at other arts organizations around town. I’m hoping to join a city council commission in the near future.
I try to have fun in everything I do. Because really, what’s the point of all this if you’re not having fun? My favorite pastimes are painting, cooking, gardening, eating, reading, seeing musicals and theater performances, dancing and spending time outside with my awesomely curious and adventurous kid.
I love a good craft beer. Columbia has some great local breweries, and I’ve got a personal relationship with Bur Oak Brewing that is very pleasurable — no guilt though. Their staple, Boone County Brown, is endlessly drinkable, and their limited release, Lily, is really unique. I enjoy Logboat Brewing Co. and 4 Hands Brewing Co. as well.
“Fake it ’til you make it.” The saying makes it sound like you’re being insincere in some way, but to me it means that you learn to do the thing by doing the thing (whatever that thing is). It’s OK to make mistakes — if you continue to do it long enough, you will eventually become a master of it. Artists often go through life feeling as if they’re frauds, that their successes don’t belong to them, and that, at any moment, they’re going to be found out. I’m paraphrasing the book “Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland, but it’s a truth that has felt particularly close to home for me at many points in my life, and one that I actively combat by remembering this lesson.
Want more 2016 20 Under 40? Check out Michael Urban’s Q&A.