Eileen Baker recently retired as the director of Savannah's Department of Cultural Affairs with very little fanfare, even though she served in that position for over 20 years.
The department, now called the Arts, Culture and Historical Resources Department, will continue on with yet-to-be-determined new leadership when the newly constructed Cultural Arts Center opens.
Baker’s legacy deserves to be celebrated, even though she relished her role as a behind-the-scenes leader and collaborator.
“I've watched Savannah grow in the arts just tremendously,” Baker said.
When she stepped into the position of director in 1996, Baker says Savannah was a rather small, homegrown town. She's watched over the two decades of her tenure as the city has grown into a truly international city, albeit one that still retains its small-town feel. She says the growth in the creative sector has been particularly noticeable.
“I think Savannah had gotten a lot better about planning,” Baker said.“We’re very lucky for the creative industry to grow in Savannah because that's what artists do.”
When she came aboard in the mid-'90s, Baker says that Savannah was home to only a handful of arts nonprofits and festivals. She helped lead efforts to expand and grow creative opportunities, which has been an incredible boon for the city.
“One of the first things that I really spearheaded was expanding festivals,” Baker said. “At one time our office actually produced and presented the Asian Festival and the Black Heritage Festival. We were running the festivals out of that office. It was never a long-term goal for the city government to be in the festival manufacturing business, but the idea was that we could identify artists and places where those festivals took place.”
Those events were eventually handed over to local organizations to run after more individuals became involved and the strategic planning was laid out. Baker says her department helped guide and establish parameters for those events, but she believes local organizations can do a much better job at running the day-to-day operations than city government can.
She's always seen her role as someone who could shepherd the resources of the department to jumpstart ideas that can eventually be further developed and run by local communities.
“Events enliven whatever area you're in, so that was always the purpose of those festivals,” Baker said.
She believes the example set by those collaborations can and should be a model for Savannah going forward.
“Right now, collaboration is key,” Baker said.
She would also like to see the definition of art expanded and utilized in new ways, particularly in the areas of community development and neighborhood revitalization.
“I think that the word 'art' is frightening to some people and misunderstood,” Baker said. “I actually don't use it too much.”
She explains that the concept of creativity strikes across many different areas and gives the examples of coding and design as key components in the growing creative sector.
“I think our society is moving away from an object-based society and into an experience-based society, so I think creativity can take many forms,” Baker said. “I think just pigeonholing it into saying, 'We don't have enough galleries' or 'Are you going to buy my piece?' That is an important part. The object is an important part of it, but that's not the whole picture... I'd really like to see art used in community development and to reduce poverty, for example.”
She explains that the creative community can be used to beautify an area and gives Waters Avenue as a good example of a location where efforts like creative place making can be put to good use.
“I'm a big believer in the idea that quality trumps everything,” Baker continued. “High quality trumps everything and all people deserve the best quality regardless of your economic situation. I've seen this a million times. If you put the highest quality in front of people, they will raise to meet it.”
Baker also talks about the technical support jobs that don't always get upfront recognition in the arts, but are integral to the creative growth of Savannah. Jobs like lighting, set building, and sound design can be highly creative skills that support productions of all types.
“We talk a lot about the jobs in film, but there is also the performing arts and all the people that run the sound and the lights,” says Baker. “Those are huge skills and you don't need a college degree to do those jobs and they're relatively high paying... You can have the greatest artist on stage, but if the mic doesn't work or the sound is off, it can kill everything.”
For the person who ends up taking on her former position, Baker has a few general bits of advice.
“I really don't have an opinion on what qualities the next person should have, but I would say that they would definitely have to understand financial management because that is a big, kind of unglamorous part of the job,” Baker said. “Going forward it has to be someone who builds consensus and knows the community and makes sure everybody is at the table... I think that a city's role is to be the collaborator and be the liaison. That's the most important role. Not to be a czar.”
Baker hopes the new director will continue the process that has always guided her department, which is a steadfast alignment with the city of Savannah's strategic priorities.
“That department has always done things for the betterment of the community,” Baker said. “We need to have outcomes for these things because it's tax dollars. If you really want the arts to be part of the infrastructure of government, it will have to produce in the same way as a fire department or building roads or anything like that."
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.