“I’d like to see a time when more of our artists are full-time working artists and not sort of cobbling things together in various ways,” said Cookie Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin, the nation’s 14th-largest ballet company. “Being an artist is a real job.”
Because Ruiz has been a longtime nonprofit leader and fundraiser, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knew her when she ended up on the short list of candidates for the ED position after serving as Ballet Austin’s development director. For Ruiz, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, the longtime impetus to raise money for causes she believes in was sparked by the sudden death of a friend, killed by a drunk driver when Ruiz was in her twenties. The person responsible had been in court seven times and had never even been disciplined with a revocation of his license, which prompted her to advocate for new laws regulating these situations.
The daughter of a U-2 pilot, Ruiz moved numerous times while growing up and has called 17 different cities “home.” Despite the constantly changing environments, a love of art and appreciation for its role in the community was always a strongly held belief. Overseeing Ballet Austin during a time that was fiscally trying for many arts organizations, locally and nationwide, she became adept at maximizing all opportunities, regardless of the resources in a particular year.
“I’m not a practicing artist myself; I don’t consider myself worthy of being called artist,” she said, sitting behind her desk at the company’s building on West Third and San Antonio Streets. “I have great reverence for artists. I’m here because I think that those who are called to be artists are underrepresented, and I think that we are underexploring that voice in this country.”
One night as the sun was going down, Artistic Director Stephen Mills took Ruiz up to a lookout spot on Dawson Road where they could see most of downtown. From that vantage point, they saw the future of Ballet Austin, which had been residing in contiguous—and continuous— building rentals before, as finding a home in the city’s urban core. “He said, ‘that’s what we need to do; we are meant to be a part of a more urban environment. I want to run an urban company,’” said Ruiz, adding that they found their current home three weeks later. “We were almost staring at this property from that hill.”
At the time, the corner of West Third and San Antonio contained a printing business, surrounded by parking lots and garages, dirt, and the Austin Music Hall. None of the subsequent development—the 360 Tower and the 2nd Street District—had yet taken place.
“I’m most impressed by Cookie’s ability to build a team and a community,” said Mills. “Whether advocating for the ballet or any of the myriad organizations she volunteers for, Cookie is known as a strategic thinker who doesn’t hold (onto) her knowledge and experience but shares with anyone who asks.” With 25 years of experience, Ruiz serves as the board president of Con Mi Madre and has served or advocated for Imagine Austin Citizens Advisory Task Force, the Young Women’s Alliance, the Austin/Travis County Hate Crimes Prevention Work Group, and Texans for the Arts.
That collaborative spirit has propelled one of the major initiatives that Ruiz, along with Mills, has championed: promoting a community-wide dialogue on human rights and the prejudice that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Two years of study, including trips to Germany, Poland and Israel, as well as formal education about the Holocaust, led to Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project. Staged twice in Austin since 2005, and licensed to ballet companies in other states, this moving and provocative work of dance also encompasses partnerships with a range of organizations, each focused around the goal of promoting universal understanding and human rights for all.
“We believe [the lesson] has not been learned. The creation of this particular new work is one of the single most important things we’ve done,” she said. “What can we do as Austinites to ensure that we take full responsibility for the protection of human rights against bigotry and hate and that we never permit ourselves to experience the dangers of indifference?”
Art is a way to commit to building the type of community that everyone can value. At the end of the day, Ruiz considers all of the artists at Ballet Austin to be her family, and she described the emotional and artistic weight of the performances in superlative terms. “I think I’m blessed. I’m not a creative person. I think I’m very good at helping others hit their potential,” she said. “It’s a nonverbal art form, which makes it universal. In those moments, I’m at a loss for words.”