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LEADING QUESTIONS: Big Car director helps drive growth

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Leading Questions

Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk about the habits that lead to success.

Jim Walker hopped into the driver’s seat of the Big Car arts collective in early 2011, as the group moved its primary base of operations from the Murphy Arts Center in Fountain Square to the revamped former home of a tire dealership by Lafayette Square Mall. More than ever, Big Car needed a full-time wheel man, as its annual budget, staff and the scope of its projects began to balloon.



Big Car’s revenue in 2008 was about $50,000—primarily funded through grants and donations—which allowed the mostly volunteer-run organization to begin paying some part-time staffers. This year, it projects about $250,000 in revenue, paving the way this fall for three full-time staff members, three part-timers, and at least five full-time workers on one-year stints through the AmeriCorps Public Allies program.

“It’s kind of turning into a small business, and it’s been pretty quick,” said Walker, 43. “There isn’t really another art-based, creativity-based not-for-profit [in Indianapolis] that’s focused on community development. And I think once we were able to articulate that and show examples of how we were doing that, then I think it clicked with people.”

Major donors for Big Car programming and projects include the Efroymson Family Fund, Indianapolis Foundation, Allen Whitehill Clowes Foundation, Pepsi Refresh Project, PNC Bank, Old National Bank, Huntington Bank, and the city of Indianapolis.

Walker helped found the group in 2005, took a leadership role in its early years, and fit the bill in 2011 as executive director. As a professional journalist for several local publications over a couple decades, he had communication and organizational skills, as well as a knack for seeing the big picture. As a creative writer who also worked with collage, sound, photography and video, he had a grounding in Big Car’s multidisciplinary approach to community art projects and staging events.

“I really felt like the art form that I was most interested in was community-based art and working with people to make things happen in cooperation with them,” Walker said.

At heart, Big Car’s mission is to bring the creative arts to the general public through collaborations with other cultural groups and its own programs. Big Car’s Made for Each Other program enlisted residents in eight urban areas to plan and participate in shows, performances and events for their own neighborhoods. The project Square Share asked artists to illustrate hundreds of personal stories collected from Lafayette Square area residents. Big Car’s annual 48 Hour Film Project invites local filmmakers to write, shoot and edit short movies in two days.

“We really saw how much of a difference it made for us to be out in communities and doing these kinds of things,” Walker said. “And we decided that we didn’t want to slow down, and that it was crucial to have somebody full-time to do that. “

Big Car’s new westside digs—named the Big Car Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community—is an apt embodiment of the group’s commitment to integrating art into the social and physical landscapes of Indianapolis neighborhoods.

Big Car bigwigs began casing the abandoned Firestone service center at 3819 Lafayette Road in late 2010 while they were in the neighborhood working on a food-and-culture project at the nearby Saraga International Market.

Sensitive to how the westside neighborhood was struggling to establish itself as a cultural corridor, Walker and other artists envisioned the center as a focal point for art projects and community events. They contacted the owner of the property, New York City-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. (which also owns the adjacent Lafayette Square Mall), and quickly worked out a deal to lease the space.

Over several months, Big Car workers rehabbed the 11,500-square-foot space for its new roles as event center, art gallery, classroom, library, performance venue and urban farming outpost. The cost of transforming the property ran about $45,000, mostly funded through grants.

It opened in April 2011. Walker estimates that about 10,000 people visited the center over its first year. He believes Big Car drives community development in part by attracting patrons who otherwise might not have reason to frequent the Lafayette Square area, packed with ethnic restaurants.

“When somebody comes [to the Service Center], you can see right away that they’re checking in on Facebook or Yelp or Four Square at one of the local restaurants or getting some coffee,” Walker said. “It’s really making an impact, as people come here and shop around or eat.”

Phil Thornton, general manager of Lafayette Square Mall, concurs. “They are quite an asset to the area,” he said. “They’re bringing clientele that has been away from this part of town for years. People feel more comfortable coming back, and they realize that we’re a viable regional mall.”

The Service Center is also a viable farm, albeit on a tiny scale. Wanting to add green space to the pavement-intensive landscape, Big Car created a series of planters in the Service Center’s parking lot that now feature an array of herbs, vegetables and wheat. Later this summer, the group will stage a family-oriented event during which they will make pizzas from the ingredients.

“Urban farming is an art form in its own right, and what we’re seeing here is a demonstration that can motivate people,” Walker said. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘If you can guys can do this here, I can certainly do it in my backyard.’”

In the video at top, Walker discusses Big Car’s growth over the last several years and how its unconventional mission still relies on old-fashioned concepts like face-to-face networking.  In the video below, Walker provides a tour of the Service Center and discusses its impact on the neighborhood.

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