Playboy curator shares unusual career

Megan Strickland

Students should keep an open mind and be willing to think outside of the box when pursuing careers, said Aaron Baker, curator of the Playboy Collection.

Baker spoke from experience at the Art in Practice series sponsored by the Visual Arts Center on Tuesday. He detailed his journey from a post-graduate student working as a furniture mover to curator of the collection of all Playboy memorabilia, including an art collection with an estimated worth of more than $25 million.

“Be patient,” Baker said. “Be open to new opportunities and don’t assume that all you can do is teach. Just be open to being a creative person in different ways than what you’ve traditionally thought you were supposed to do or were limited to doing.”

Xochi Solis, program coordinator for the Visual Arts Center, said the center wanted to feature Baker in the speaker series because the Art in Practice program’s goal is to inform students about different career paths in art, even unconventional ones.

“There are a lot of nuances of becoming a professional artist,” Solis said. “There are a lot of strange jobs you pick up along the way.”

Baker, who graduated from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1998 with a master’s degree in studio art, said he never expected to become curator of Playboy’s archive of 5,000 pieces of original art, 20 million photos, cartoons and editorial content.

“I just kind of fell into this career by being open to different opportunities,” Baker said. “It’s been a nice surprise to go to school for a studio degree and just assume I was going to make art and maybe teach and then fall into this weird career.”

Baker found there were no jobs available as an art instructor when he graduated and was working as a frustrated furniture mover when his wife convinced him to become an art handler at an auction house, he said. Baker said he rose through the ranks of the business and was an art appraiser when Playboy decided to auction off some of its collection in 2002. Baker formed a relationship with the retiring curator during his evaluation of the Playboy works and was hired following the auction, he said.

In the subsequent decade, Baker has cared for original artwork, editorial content and interview material from famous personalities, including Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Frank Sinatra, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kerouac, Ian Fleming, John Updike and Hunter S. Thompson, he said. A posterity archive of Playboy memorabilia that includes a variety of objects including memorabilia from the original Playboy mansion and Hugh Hefner’s private jet is also under the control of Baker, he said.

The short-lived 2011 television show “The Playboy Club” relied heavily on Baker’s and his associates’ research in the posterity archive, as well as Hugh Hefner’s personal collection of 3,000 scrapbooks and personal comic strips to help find pieces from a certain era, Baker said.

Studio art junior Rachel Wade said seeing the variety of ways Baker has utilized his art background was very beneficial to students.

“I’m learning a lot more about curating and auctioning,” Wade said. “He was very personal and helped give advice to students on how we can get to have such a cool job like he has.”