My Time at The Walker



This month, three years ago, I set out to change the world. Well, I set out to change Indy, at least, by jumping ship at the Arts Council and leaping into work at the Madame Walker Theatre Center. The Walker, as it's called in Indy, had been without leadership and hardly any staff for over a year and I just knew that I could get in and re-energize the programming at this important place.

I interviewed with the Board of Directors in December 2010 and heard back from them in May that they wanted a second interview. That was odd, I thought, but hey, maybe it was meant to be. I remember going into the building and it feeling very empty. There was no one at the door downstairs, the lady at the front desk was cold, didn't seem to like that I was there. It was hot, very hot and the lights weren't on. I hadn't been in the Walker for years prior to that and never on the 4th floor where the admin offices were. A building that was once really cool was now lifeless, un-kept and tired.

The Madame Walker sign from the roof of the Madame Walker Theatre.

I walked out of the interview with even more eagerness to save this landmark, to energize it and to leave my mark. I started a few weeks later and made it a point to walk into the office every morning with a huge smile. I wanted to let the other staff know that I was here to help and that there was hope. I painted the walls in my area a sea blue - a color that was calming and dreamy - one that I'd hoped would spark ideas and creativity. I searched the building for vintage furniture and had things rearranged.

I turned the lights on.

A year after my time there, with other new hires Terry Bailey and Sherri Brown Webster, we had 14 new signature programs. We built a new website, opened the doors to new faces and greeted everyone who came in with friendly, helpful smiles. We were turning the ship. We were letting the city know, again, about all of the wonderful things the Walker has been to the African American community, to Indy and to our country's history.  For a time, Indiana Avenue was Indy's arts scene. This is where jazz was born, where you could hear music playing a mile away and where there was dancing in the streets. Not much is left of old Indiana Avenue, besides the Walker, and maybe Bethel AME, so it feels as if its significance is slipping away, generation by generation.

The Madame Walker Theatre Center is an amazing space. It is an internationally acclaimed building known for its unique architecture and for being home to some of the country's best musicians. I've walked into that theatre 1,000 times and have seen something new each visit. The walls speak to you, the halls tell stories and if you listen, it almost seems as if you can hear the old jazz music, foot stomping and laughter that used to fill the building. Mr. Ridley, a 91-year-old docent guide, gives amazing tours of the building and of Indiana Avenue. The museum has the largest collection of Madam's artifacts worldwide and a good performance in the theatre is just worth it.

Places like the Walker are what make Indy, Indy. Stories about old activity in the building should happen more. Stories about the cool hangout spots and barbershops and record stores on Indiana Ave should be told more.  I'm so happy to have spent time serving the legacy of the nation's first female self-made millionaire. And now, as I move on to a new venture, all I can say is: What an honor.

Mali poses beside a display of the Madame Walker postage stamp.

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