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New Madame Walker CEO hits ground running 

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"It's going to take me a couple of years," Kathleen Spears says of her new job as President and CEO of the Madame Walker Theatre Center. A couple of years to get a new HVAC system installed and paid for. A couple of years to bring back season ticket subscribers. To re-open a museum devoted to Madame Walker so that walk-in visitors can learn about the legacy of the first female, self-made millionaire. To get the Walker back on solid financial and organizational footing. And most importantly, to earn back the trust of the community, which had started to think of the Walker as a lost cause.

In other words, Spears is taking on a big job. When she was named CEO in April (after serving as interim CEO since January), she took over a job that had been unstaffed on a permanent basis since December 2011. And the person who previously held the position only lasted a year and a half. As former board member Patricia Payne told NUVO in 2012, "I think it's because of how things have developed that we can't keep somebody in place. The person who is there as the executive director has to do five or six different jobs that don't even come under their purview."

click to enlarge Kathleen Spears
  • Kathleen Spears

Spears isn't fazed. "That's actually what attracted me to this, that there's a lot to tackle and do," she says. When she moved to the Walker after a successful run as President and CEO of Cancer Support Community Central Indiana, she says her friend Barbara Boyd (yes, the TV pioneer) asked her, jokingly, why she would leave such a cushy gig? "But why wouldn't I?" Spears says. "Madam C. J. Walker is a legend, this is the largest memorial to her, right here in Indianapolis, and we're letting it fall! As an African-American woman I felt like I needed to take the skills that I have in fundraising, program development and strategic planning, bring them here and just — get 'er done."

And if long-range planning is on Spears' mind, that doesn't mean she can't claim victories early in her run. She says the Walker's annual fundraiser, the Spirit Awards, held this April, raised over $80,000, compared to a typical take of $35-40,000. "Its the lowest amount I've ever raised as a professional fundraiser, but the most the Walker's ever raised," Spears adds. And she reports that the non-profit ended its fiscal year "with close to a quarter of a million dollars in the bank, which hasn't happened for the Walker in over 20 years." Spears aims to keep things that way: "There was some poor management and leadership historically. I'm very conservative financially — liberal otherwise — and the board keeps a very close watch now too over our funding."

Other recent victories? She reports that mechanical and electrical giant DEEM is being "very generous and very flexible" in working with the Walker to install a permanent HVAC system. And she and the board are planning a 2014-15 season headlined by dance icon Savion Glover, who will perform his one-man show Maria's Voice, a "beautifully poetic piece about breaking free from oppression and domestic violence," in addition to doing a free master class for youth.

click to enlarge Savion Glover
  • Savion Glover

The theme of the upcoming season is Journey to Freedom; as Spears puts it, "We're on a journey to break free from the shackles that were holding us back from progress." Those shackles include everything from the aforementioned HVAC system to the belief that a mismanaged Walker can't be trusted to handle contributions effectively. Spears hopes to earn back trust by being financially responsible and transparent — interested parties are welcome to ask her any questions about the Walker, from the books to the season — as well as an accessible partner to the community.

She aims to engage with neighboring institutions such as the Indianapolis Urban League, Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and IUPUI in order to "get people down here on the Avenue." Case in point was the recent Indiana Avenue Music Crawl, which found venues up and down the Avenue putting on free outdoor concerts on the first Friday in June. She also points to partnerships with other organizations that are on their own Journeys to Freedom, such as the Indianapolis Men's Chorus.

And as for getting back to the Walker's roots, keep an eye out for the launch of a classic film series, Throwback Thursdays. "When this building was built in 1927, it was a movie theater," Spears says. "And it was built because African-Americans would go to the Indiana Theatre up the street and be charged three or four times as much or not be admitted at all." Throwback Thursdays films will, likewise, be reasonably priced ($5 for admission, popcorn and a drink), and will often tie into other programming (a documentary about the assassination of Martin Luther King, At the River I Stand, will screen in January).

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