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Spark Spotlight: Nicole Cooke, Rising Star

The Spark Awards celebrate and recognize outstanding individuals and organizations from across the Western New York arts community for their dedication, talent, and impact on the arts and cultural sector. This year’s presentation will be streamed for free on our YouTube page on Wednesday, May 26, 2021 at 7:00 pm.

Click here to learn more about the Spark Awards.


Nicole Cooke is the Executive Director at the WNY Book Arts Center, an arts education & cultural nonprofit dedicated to printing and book related arts. Prior to leading the organization, Nicole had been a Book Arts volunteer for several years including service as a member of its Board of Directors, where she was identified as an ideal candidate for her role as part of a planned leadership succession in 2019.

In her first year as ED, Cooke completed the Harvard Business School of Buffalo Alumni Club’s Not For Profit Management Program and initiated Book Arts’ participation as one of only 9 organizations invited to take part in StoryGrowing WNY, a competitive six-month communications training program facilitated by the John R. Oishei Foundation. She also oversaw the development and implementation of a full visual rebrand, including a new logo and website – which won a coveted gold ADDY Award from the American Advertising Federation in early 2020. Throughout her tenure as Executive Director, Nicole has overseen extensive top-to-bottom remodeling of Book Arts’ building at 468 Washington Street.

Prior to joining the team at Book Arts, Cooke worked her way up to Communications & Development Manager at Valu Home Centers over her 5-year tenure at the local, family owned chain of hardware stores. She was responsible for a wide variety of duties, from assisting the VP of Marketing & Development with all public-facing communications in print and digital media, to photography and graphic design, and community relations. It was here that Cooke developed and implemented Valu Crew, a volunteer program for Sales Associates that was met with great enthusiasm and served 5 counties with hundreds of hours of service in its first year. It was for these efforts that she was honored with a ‘30 Under 30’ award by Buffalo Business First in 2017.

Cooke is passionate about artistic engagement and professional development; experimentation with process-based media; educating WNY’s diverse populace; and promoting the democratic sharing of ideas and information. Most recently, Cooke was elected to serve on the board of directors for the WNY chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals beginning in early 2020, and has been serving on their Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) committee since mid-2019. She is also a member of the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance, a steering committee that advocates on behalf of cultural organizations in the WNY area. Most recently, Nicole completed Linda Ray’s Fund Development Boot Camp in 2020, where she enthusiastically returned as a Camp Counselor in 2021.

In addition to her commitment to Book Arts, Cooke is an 8-time (soon to be 9!) participant in the Ride for Roswell, supporting Roswell Park Cancer Institute with over 380 miles ridden and $20,000 raised in memory of her late grandfather. She lives in the City of Buffalo with her partner Mike West, and their two cats Biscuit and Porkchop.

Learn more about Nicole!

Who and/or what inspired you to become an artist/arts administrator?

I took a somewhat nonlinear path to this point in my career; in college I studied photography while also working at Delaware Camera and had a variety of internships – from the 20×24 Studio in NYC to New Era Cap here in Buffalo – then discovered printmaking as part of my creative studies. I went on to work in marketing & PR at Valu Home Centers, becoming a member at Book Arts after taking a letterpress class and eventually joining the board, where I was identified as the ideal candidate to succeed the current Executive Director following her planned retirement. I have always loved being part of a creative team, and arts administration sits right at the intersection of my professional experience as both an artist and a strategist. Funny enough, I gave a talk at an AIGA conference for emerging graphic designers on ‘remaining open to opportunity’ right before this role found me!

What motivates you to keep working and creating?

I love creative problem solving. Seriously. If someone doesn’t present me with a challenge, I will go out and find one – and in a way, I think this drive to seek solutions has propelled me through my career trajectory because it has made me a self-starter with a lot of innate curiosity. In my work now, the problems I seek to solve together with my incredible team of board, staff, volunteers, and colleagues relate not only to our own organization, but to the advancement of artists and the creative sector in WNY which is incredibly meaningful to me. I also feel so motivated by the ingenuity and resilience of the arts organizations around me, and I’m fortunate to have some really incredible peer role models. They really helped me keep going through the darkest pandemic days.

If you didn’t work in this industry, what would you be doing? What other career do you think you would have and why?

My experience in this industry has shifted my perspective on work so profoundly that I’m honestly not sure what else I would be doing if I weren’t where I am right now. I had always imagined myself staying in the marketing and PR realm, hopefully moving into creative direction one day, but now I’m also interested in social enterprise, the startup ecosystem, creative workforce development, and about a thousand other things. Perhaps the greatest perk of this role is getting to spend my time surrounded by people who care a lot about the work they do, so I can’t help but get excited about each new venture I learn about in one way or another. I’ve always followed the words of Ray Bradbury, ‘Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.’

What hobbies or likes do you have outside of the arts?

I’m an avid cyclist, about to complete my 9th Ride for Roswell in loving memory of my late grandpa – 65 miles this year! I’ve raised more than $20,000 for Roswell Park in his name since I started participating in the Ride in 2013. I love riding my bike and have really doubled down on that interest throughout the pandemic. My partner and I also love to travel and take in new food, art, and scenery – and we eagerly look forward to getting back out into the world.

What is one thing people don’t know about you and/or your work?

This question is funny because I have come to realize that most people have no idea what Executive Directors do unless they have worked with a nonprofit directly, especially since the role can look a lot different from one organization to another. In general, people don’t seem to realize that we only have 3 full-time staff members and a more modest budget than they think, because we are incredibly creative and resourceful. I’m not entirely sure what people *do* know about me, but I’d love to find out!

Is there anyone you would like to thank or share appreciation for?

This question is funny because I have come to realize that most people have no idea what Executive Directors do unless they have worked with a nonprofit directly, especially since the role can look a lot different from one organization to another. In general, people don’t seem to realize that we only have 3 full-time staff members and a more modest budget than they think, because we are incredibly creative and resourceful. I’m not entirely sure what people *do* know about me, but I’d love to find out!

It *truly* takes a village to run a nonprofit, especially as someone new not only to this role but to the sector in general. First and foremost, I would like to thank Rosemary and Melissa for sticking with me through the wild ride of the last two years – I honestly believe we made it through the chaos because we did it together. I’d like to thank my board and Gail Nicholson for the opportunity of a lifetime – and all of their support since day one. To Kathy Kearnan, my kindred spirit, for more than words can express. To Doug Wasiura at Valu Home Centers, thank you for all of your mentorship and guidance as a model leader. To Jim Sampson, Karen Spaulding, Linda Ray, and Pamela Say for taking me under your wings – sometimes for flight and sometimes for shelter! To my fellow Cruise Directors for all of our antics, you wonderful rascals! To Clark Dever, Matt Helt, and the WNY Startup Community for repeatedly showing me our whole city is rooting for us. To my Uncle Dan and Aunt Cathy who opened so many doors for me. To my entire family who supported me as I jumped head-first through each one. To my partner Mike for always believing in me and all of my wild ideas. To everyone who has ever given to Book Arts in any way as a vote of confidence in our mission. THANK YOU!

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