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Madam Walker Theatre Center and IU begin partnership to continue rich legacy of Madam C.J. Walker

New collaboration and support from Lilly Endowment Inc. totaling more than $15M will help fund renovation and transitional operations

For Immediate Release Jan 18, 2018
The Madam Walker Theatre Center
The Madam Walker Theatre Center.Photo by Samantha Thompson, IU Communications

INDIANAPOLIS – In a move that will refurbish and modernize one of Indianapolis’ most beloved landmarks, the Madam Walker Theatre Center and Indiana University have announced the formulation of a first-ever partnership.

The collaboration continues the rich legacy and tradition of the renowned entrepreneur, civil rights activist and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker and commits to a complete renovation of the Madam Walker Theatre Center building. It also features a new programmatic thrust to ensure the Walker’s sustainability and economic viability and includes a new slate of class offerings, workshops, seminars and a speaker series in partnership with IUPUI to help better serve the community. As part of the initiative, the Walker will also engage the local community to provide thoughts in shaping future programming and events.

“At the core of this collaboration is a desire to honor the legacy and work of America’s first self-made female millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker,” said Joyce Q. Rogers, MWTC board chair. “We invited Indiana University to the table because we believe this partnership will lay the necessary groundwork to place the Walker on a stronger path forward. Our objective is to better serve the current generation of leaders, entrepreneurs and community members, as well as those to come.”

“The Madam Walker Theatre Center is an iconic treasure of the Indianapolis cultural community and a vital piece of our state’s and country’s history,” IU President Michael A. McRobbie said. “IU and the IUPUI campus are honored to partner with the center in helping to restore this landmark to its rightful presence and advancing the legacy of its namesake through new collaborative activities that reflect the center’s longstanding mission of educating, empowering, entertaining and celebrating our rich cultural diversity.”

“Together, MWTC and IUPUI are poised to launch one of the most creative and forward-looking partnerships and economic revitalization projects in the city of Indianapolis,” IUPUI Chancellor Nasser H. Paydar said. “Through this joint initiative, IUPUI is pleased to support the Walker in offering programs to further serve our neighboring community and attract national attention to Madam Walker’s legacy here in Indianapolis.”

Madam Walker was a staunch supporter of the Indianapolis community she called home, creating numerous jobs, especially for women, and serving as a dedicated patron of the arts. Her story and her work have transcended boundaries and inspired many globally. In fact, NBA superstar LeBron James has teamed up with Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer for an upcoming Netflix series about Madam Walker’s life based on the biography “On Her Own Ground” by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.

In the spirit of this extraordinary leader, the new partnership between MWTC and IU is designed to continue her work and is fully supported by the family of Madam Walker.

“As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Madam Walker’s birth, we are very enthusiastic about this collaboration between the Walker and Indiana University, ” said Bundles, a former MWTC board member. “We believe their combined commitment and visionary leadership will honor the lessons of Madam Walker’s entrepreneurship, philanthropy and love of the arts in ways that will have a powerful impact on the Indianapolis community.”

Since 1927, the MWTC has stood as a bastion of pride for the Indianapolis community and beyond. In fact, it is a registered National Historic Landmark that once housed the headquarters and manufacturing plant of Madam C.J. Walker Hair Care and Beauty Products. Over the years, the MWTC evolved into a gathering place for events, cultural programs and educational forums, but it now requires extensive modernization to continue its valuable service to the community.

“It is truly the start of a new day for the Walker,” former MWTC board chair Stephanie Nixon said. “We are so grateful for the yearlong, tireless efforts of our strategic planning committee, composed of Walker board members and community stakeholders, for their work to get us to this phase of our journey. Without their dedication to the betterment of the Walker and to upholding Madam Walker’s legacy, the organization would not be positioned for such an exciting future.”

Also critical to this endeavor is the support of Lilly Endowment Inc. Grants from Lilly Endowment totaling more than $15.3 million will assist in the transitional operations of the Walker and a full renovation of the MWTC building, with state-of-the-art equipment, operational system updates and exterior improvements.

“Lilly Endowment was motivated nearly 40 years ago to begin its support of the Madam Walker Theatre Center because of the extraordinary legacy of Madam C.J. Walker in philanthropy, business and the arts. The compelling story of how she triumphed over formidable odds has inspired generations of women, African-Americans and others to believe they too can succeed,” said Lilly Endowment Chairman, President and CEO N. Clay Robbins. “We believe this synergistic collaboration between Indiana University and the Madam Walker Theatre Center holds great promise to further her legacy and advance the aims of IU and the center for years to come.”

The partnership between the Walker and IU and the support of Lilly Endowment are important initial steps toward the Walker’s long-term sustainability and strategic rebranding – which includes a new mission, vision and name change to the Madam Walker Legacy Center. A search is underway by the Walker board for a new permanent executive director, who will implement new and innovative programming to serve the community and continue to build on the current modernization efforts. The Walker will also engage additional partners and looks forward to an inclusive process in determining strategies for its ongoing viability. Paying homage to Madam Walker’s entrepreneurial prowess, philanthropic passion, and love for art and culture, the Walker board is dedicated to making the institution the cornerstone of Indiana Avenue once again.

About the Madam Walker Theatre Center

An integral part of the Indianapolis community, the Madam Walker Theatre Center is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Madam C.J. Walker by providing cultural education, promoting social justice, supporting entrepreneurship, and empowering youth to become the next generation of business owners and civic leaders. The Walker seeks to empower, educate and entertain and uses its historic building as a venue for celebrating cultural diversity, rich heritage and cultural traditions, primarily through art from the African-American perspective.

About Lilly Endowment Inc.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is a national private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by three members of the Lilly family – J.K. Lilly Sr. and sons J.K. Jr. and Eli – through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Co. While those gifts remain the financial bedrock of the endowment, the endowment is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, Lilly Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion and maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana.

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