Brad Burdick is the Executive Director of the Mt Baker Theatre in downtown Bellingham. The theatre is the largest performing arts venue north of Seattle and showcases some of the best live performing artists in the North Puget Sound area and lower mainland of British Columbia.
What brought you to Bellingham?
Before I came here, I used to work for the Alumni Association of Oklahoma State University. I was a road warrior, traveling all over the country setting up alumni functions.
The year we came out to the Northwest was the year that Oklahoma State went to the Final Four. Big Country Reeves was playing basketball. We ended up losing, and that was the first time we came out to Washington State. My wife and I got some extra time to drive around and explore the state. Ultimately, we decided we had to figure out how to move here.
We moved out a few months later and I got the job at the theatre as an interim director. My expertise was not in theatre, but in nonprofit management, fundraising, recruiting, and training. They told me it was a six-week job opportunity, that I should hold the fort down while they did a national search to find someone qualified to run the theatre.
That was 19 years ago. Here I am.
What the theatre really needed at the time was someone to straighten the budget out and redirect programming. We renegotiated our agreement with the city and started doing some new fundraising activities. Over the last 19 or so years, the theatre has turned into one of the centerpieces of Bellingham and downtown.
What is your favorite spot in Bellingham?
The theatre, of course! After the theatre, there’s so many great spots. I love going down to the waterfront. I like walking around Taylor Dock. I love the feel that Fairhaven adds to the community.
The Arts District, though, is one of the unique things about Bellingham. Having the theatre, the museum, The Pickford, and all the other organizations here is one of the unique things about this town.
What would be your perfect Bellingham weekend?
I love to bike, so I’d probably start with an early morning bike ride down Chuckanut Drive. Then I’d spend some time mid-day going to Village Books, then come to a great theatre performance in the evening.
What do you love best about your job?
It’s always different. Between the personalities of the artists that come through and the unexpected things that happen, it’s always exciting. I’m always meeting new people, and dealing with unique personalities. Some of them are sort of challenging, and some of them are surprisingly professional, even though their personas would indicate otherwise.
What do people not understand about the Mount Baker Theatre?
Probably how expensive it is to run an old historic building. It takes a lot of people to keep this place up and running. There’s not a lot of communities our size that can handle and support a 1,500 seat performing arts facility. If you look across the country, most populations of less than 100,000 are lucky if they have a venue half our size. That creates challenges for us, partly because it’s so old, and partly because it’s so big.
Attracting the kind of artists that’ll fill a 1,500 seat hall is not really easy to do when you’re not in a major metropolitan area. The advantage we’ve discovered is that there’s an awful lot of people in Bellingham that are more likely to attend live performance events than a typical community our size. There’s a lot more support for what we do. Maybe it’s all of the things we’re talking about: the environment and the uniqueness of Bellingham. It’s really an artist’s community.
There was a study done a couple years ago that per capita, we’re number two in the country for people who claim to be artists on their tax returns. The only city that beat us was Santa Fe. That mentality creates a desire for people to want to have live experiences and get away from the television set.
We’ve also got a really large volunteer support group, about 300 people who we call ‘stars’. They help us usher, market shows, work the reception desk, give tours, build sets, and construct and paint things. We find ways to plug them in so that they have a special experience with the theatre. Then they start telling their friends and families that there are cool things happening down here.
Is there a new business or organization you’d like to see in Bellingham?
Honestly, I think it’s just more business in general. New businesses bring new energy, new money, and different perspectives.
Is there an existing brewery, restaurant, or store the world needs to know about?
Talk about breweries! That’s an interesting new market that Bellingham created. There’s so many. I love Boundary Bay Brewery, it’s always a fun place to go. It’s part of the community. But there’s good beer everywhere.
What are people always surprised to learn about you?
Probably that I like to ride bikes so much. I haven’t done it as much this year because I was a Rotary President. For several years in a row, I was riding more than 5,000 miles a year.
I talk to people in Seattle that ride a lot and they ride right in the middle of traffic. I’ve tried riding down there, even on trails you still have to stop and dodge cars. Here you can get out in the county and go.
If you were to study just for yourself, is there anything you’d study?
If I could learn about something else, it’d probably be CAD programs. I love woodworking. I design and build furniture, when I’m not here or riding a bike. I’d probably be an architect if I could draw a straight line on a piece of paper. I’ve got lousy handwriting, but I can visualize things.
If you had to enroll at Western today, what would you study?
Business. We have a lot of theater majors here. They’re really passionate about theater, they’re excited about it. But if people don’t have a real clear passion about what they want to do with the rest of their lives, if they get a basic knowledge of business, it’s going to help them with whatever they decide to do.
If you understand how money works, how budgets work, how to plan for what you can and cannot afford, how to make a decision and move forward to make it happen, it makes a big difference. Any industry you’re in, you’re going to be dealing with those kinds of decisions to make.