Walker Theatre puts out call for help 

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It's not out of the ordinary for a non-profit to launch a fundraising campaign on a major anniversary year; even those that receive consistent funding from endowments with deep pockets have occasional need for larger sums for building projects and new initiatives.

But most of these fill-in-the-blank anniversary celebrations aren't accompanied by the same kind of urgency which attends the Madame Walker Theater Center's request for $1 million to meet building upkeep needs, tied into the center's 85th anniversary celebration. To read a press release (link to pdf) issued by the center last week, this is a save-our-ship mission: $1 million is needed, according to estimates by the Walker's board, to pay for "critical facility maintenance in order to keep the building safe and open for the remainder of 2012."

Let's start with the facts, then, to clarify the situation: The Walker is safe and open as of today, and will be for the foreseeable future. As board member Patricia Payne puts it, "We haven't reached the point where we've even entertained the thought of closing."

But the Walker is taking a financial hit every month it has to pay rental and electricity costs on a portable AC unit that has temporarily replaced the building's outmoded HVAC system. According to Malina Jeffers, director of marking and programs at the Walker, if the Walker fails to raise any additional funds by the end of the summer, management will have to consider laying off staff or taking other steps to reduce expenses. And if the end of 2012 is reached without any funds raised, management will be forced to consider taking even more drastic measures, including closing the Walker's doors and laying off full-time staff.

A new HVAC system estimated to cost $565,000 is the most expensive line item on the center's list of maintenance and improvement needs. The center has piled other maintenance needs into the $1 million fundraising figure: $30,000 for kitchen upgrades, including equipment, a sidewalk lift-door and handicap chair lift; $15,000 for electrical wiring needs, including theater lighting; $2,000 for venting and sewer needs to address a persistent odor that Walker lighting technician Matthew Wilson says can be attributed to standing water in old pipes; $15,000 for the roof; $3,000 for plumbing; $3,500 for heating and cooling units, beyond the new HVAC system; and $125,000 for six months of maintenance costs.

These needs are longstanding; board members report that they unsuccessfully attempted to address the most significant of them last year, and a capital campaign has been ongoing. But an April 19 column in the Indianapolis Recorder by Shannon Williams, a Walker board member and Recorder editor, kicked off a more widely publicized effort to solicit funds.

Titled "A Plea for the Madame Walker Theatre Center," the column begins by pointing to the "elephant in the room" - the lack of effective AC at the Center - before calling out those who complain about the problem without making efforts to fix it. The Walker's press release concerning its critical maintenance needs arrived on the heels of the column, taking Williams's turn of phrase, "elephant in the room," for its headline, and launching a more aggressive approach to fundraising.

A May 4 visit by Afternoons with Amos to New Orleans on the Avenue, across Indiana Avenue from the Walker, saw Amos Brown devoting an hour of his show to addressing the situation by talking with board members and callers. (10 percent of food sales at the restaurant was donated to the Walker during the length of the broadcast.)

Brown kicked off the hour by reading down the annual revenue and expenses for the non-profit from its last published report for the 2009-10 fiscal year - $1,055,413 in revenue; $886,878 in expenses. Such an editorial decision by Brown points to a concern addressed by Jeffers - namely that, because there have been issues in the past with misallocation of resources, such that money "donated for Jazz in the Avenue" might be "spent on fixing the toilet," Jeffers says the Walker will assure donators that their monies will go where they intend them to go; in this case, toward long-needed repairs.

As Jeffers puts it, it's important that the Walker "ensures trust" between the organization and the community; there are "too many stories: awesome stories and not so awesome stories" floating about the community regarding the center.

Employees of the Walker and board members alike admit they could've been more open about their fundraising needs. But, as Payne puts it, "It's now about making sure the community knows that we cannot do this without them, and making sure they understand why it's important that the doors of the Walker stay open."

As part of a broader effort to address the board's responsibility in the situation, board members have been working with Dr. Michael Twyman of the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to undergo professional development. "We're looking at our responsibility as board members," says Payne. "It's more than just coming to a monthly meeting; that's not going to keep the doors open."

The Walker continues to look for a new CEO, though Payne emphasizes that changes should be made to ensure that whomever is hired remains in the job for long enough to make an impact. Terry Whitt Bailey, the most recent CEO, held the position from April 2010 to December 2011. "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."

And so, while one caller to Afternoons with Amos, pledged her full-on support, noting that she was "on her way down to the theater" to give $100, and that everyone else should do the same, others questioned how things got to the point of the Walker having to address an emergency call for funds. One caller asked if the Walker had solicited multiple bids for repairs; A'Lelia Bundles, the longtime board member and great-great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker, answered that the management team had received several bids, and that the budget figure was a conservative estimate.

Another caller asked why the board wasn't able to bring in more money from the city or corporate entities. Bundles, explaining that the board is a "very interesting hybrid" largely comprised of community representatives, rather than those from the corporate world, said that they were reconsidering their approach, undergoing board development and recruiting those with personal wealth to address concerns that the board doesn't have quite enough "juice," as Brown put it.

Lighting technician Matthew Wilson hopes to answer some of those concerns with a block party/fundraiser on Indiana Avenue toward the close of the summer, the sort of celebration that used to draw all-comers to the Avenue. He also hopes that renovating the center's lighting and sound equipment will draw more rental business - at the kind of price that will make rentals a viable business for the Walker.

In all, the fight is worth it, according to Payne: "Whatever is for the good of the Walker Theatre is for the good of the city, the state - and, in fact, the entire nation, because it's a National Historic Landmark. And to us, it's not just a call-out to the black community; it's a call-out to the community in general."

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