Photo by Thomas J. Turney / State Journal-Register
Article by Steven Spearie
Sheila Walk is retiring as the executive director of the Springfield Area Arts Council at the end of the year.
But don’t count on her being entirely absent from the Hoogland Center for the Arts, where SAAC has its offices.
Walk, 66, will still oversee two programs, including one, Poetry Out Loud, that initially brought her to the non-profit as a volunteer more than 15 years ago.
“I’m used to working, so it’s better for me if I continue working,” said Walk, with a laugh, in a recent interview.
A search committee was interviewing four candidates Thursday and Friday for the executive director position. The pay range is $30,000 to $40,000.
This New Year’s Eve, the arts council is co-producing First Night Springfield with the Hoogland Center. It is the first time all the programming will be inside the South Sixth Street center.
The mission of SAAC, Walk said, is to enrich communities in Sangamon and Menard counties through the arts. It is funded through federal and state grants, member organizations and private donations.
SAAC has a budget of $160,000.
Walk is a one-person band − except for a bookkeeper and website designer employed on a contractual basis − who is often working on four or five different programs at the same time.
“You’re always writing grant applications, reporting on grants, finding sponsors, raising money, and managing a fundraiser as well as answering the phone and opening the mail and working with the board and all of the things that come up with running an office and a non-profit,” she said.
Walk started with SAAC in 2008 as a volunteer for Poetry Out Loud, a recitation contest for high school students. In 2011, she was hired to work on that program as well as others as her workload increased.
That fit in nicely, Walk said, with her nearly three decades as a teacher, including 22 years at Ursuline Academy in Springfield, where she taught speech and theatre, literature, composition, psychology, and sociology and directed three shows a year. She used Poetry Out Loud in her oral interpretation class at the north end school, which closed in 2007.
Walk became the interim executive director in 2017 after Jon Austin left that position. She eventually shed the “interim” title in early 2019.
“I’m fortunate to have found success in a second career,” Walk said.
One of her last acts is helping oversee one of the nation’s longest-running First Nights, a celebration of local performing and visual arts.
In recent years, the family-friendly, alcohol-free alternative to New Year’s Eve parties has reduced its footprint and its budget, Walk said. Some past performances were held in the Illinois State Library, the Illinois Capitol Rotunda and the Old State Capitol as well other venues like First Presbyterian Church and Lincoln Library, but those venues have all gone away.
The unpredictable late December weather sometimes made bouncing from venue to venue an adventure.
“Now we’re in one building, so for those who might hesitate (to come out because of the weather), this makes it easier,” Walk said.
Gus Gordon, the executive director of the Hoogland Center, recalled First Night was one of the first events he participated in after moving to Springfield in 1990. He was “overwhelmed by how much the city embraced this event.”
First Night attendees get, Gordon said, “a Whitman’s Sampler of the arts,” with performances by the Springfield Muni Opera, Copper Coin Ballet Company, Land of Lincoln Barbershop Chorus, Springfield International Folk Dancers and Springfield Theatre Center, among others.
“Sheila and (and former SAAC executive director) Penny (Wollan-Kriel) kept First Night alive and I think it’s a tribute to them and we want to help see it continue because it’s important for the city,” Gordon said. “It’s a great way to share the arts and share what we do with people who might not normally come here.”
Gordon called Walk “a cheerleader” for the arts community in the region and that the SAAC will have big shoes to fill.
“She’s a one-person dynamo,” Gordon said. “She has her pulse on everything going on around town. This isn’t just a job for her; it’s a passion.
“I’m sure they will (find a replacement), but Sheila’s heart is one of her most important attributes and her caring and I’m so thrilled to know she’s still going to be part of the landscape and a presence here.”
Walk has mentored young talent in the area. Shatriya Smith is among those she has helped going on to be an executive director in her own right at the Garvey Tubman Cultural Arts and Research Center.
Walk said one of her goals coming on as executive director was to bring more financial stability to SAAC. Another goal was to raise the profile of the organization in the community.
“I think I’ve done that,” she said. “COVID threw a wrench into that financial aspect, but I think more people are aware of the SAAC and its unique programming that I feel good about doing those things.”
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