March 30, 2018
Women in Business Awards 2018

Spears is a relentless advocate for arts in education

Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Steve Laschever

Yolande Nicholson Spears

Senior Vice President, Education & Community Initiatives

The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts

When Yolande Spears' mom bought an old violin in a pawn shop, Spears had a pretty good idea that her life was about to change. What she didn't know was how that introduction to music would go on to change countless lives in the Hartford area and beyond.

Spears is senior vice president of education and community initiatives at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. As popular as the Bushnell is, what is not as well-known is the organization's nationally recognized role in education and community engagement, which transpired under the leadership of Spears during her 26-year tenure at the nonprofit arts venue.

Her daily goal is to provide underserved populations access to the performing arts. Though most of her efforts concentrate on the Greater Hartford area, she helped develop an executive arts management training program used by people as far away as China as she continues to be a relentless national advocate for the importance of arts in education.

A graduate of Fontbonne University in her hometown of St. Louis, Mo., Spears received her bachelor's degree in theater and communications. Before joining the Bushnell, she was in management positions at both Aetna and Travelers Cos. She joined The Bushnell in 1992.

Spears is known for "creating something from nothing" and calls that philosophy a driving force.

That was evident to her colleagues with her development of school-based, talent development and community programs in the Hartford region.

The Partners student program, for example, uses the arts to teach core curriculum with a focus on literacy and increasing appreciation of the arts. Over 1 million Hartford region students have participated. It is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions from The National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Education, the Connecticut Quality Innovative Award and the Connecticut Department of Education.

"Education is a part of the Bushnell's original 1919 charter," Spears said. "It's in our DNA, it has been from the very beginning."

Recently, Spears began to lead sensory awareness programs, in which environmental adjustments are made so that those diagnosed with autism or other sensitivities can enjoy the performing arts. In recognition of this work, The Broadway League selected The Bushnell to be the first venue to roll out its Family First Night program, a national initiative designed to make Broadway programming accessible and affordable for underserved families.

"When I came here and started learning about the Bushnell as a venue, I knew I'd have to become a member of the community," Spears said. "And when you learn to work in a community, you have to learn to listen, it can't be about the organization and what we think people want."

She has a knack for listening to the populations she serves and developing programs and events that meet their needs. She calls it an opportunity to creatively create programming for children and bring the curriculum alive through artists.

What she loves most about her job is the opportunity to be an entrepreneur in an existing organization. "David Fay is very innovative and entrepreneurial and he has encouraged me to follow that philosophy," she says.

Fay, The Bushnell's president and CEO, said Spears has been invaluable to the organization.

In Nov. 2017, Spears was selected as one of six people in the country to receive the Milestone Award by the National Guild for Community Arts Education for her two decades of arts in education work. In 2006, she participated as a delegate in a trade mission to China. The Bushnell is now a major provider of education to members of the China Association of Performing Arts, who participate in a Spears-created executive arts management training program.

It is the way that Spears takes most everything she does to the next level that impresses Fay the most, he said. He shared a story of Spears' China visit.

"She did her research before she went and learned that gift-giving is an important part of the Chinese culture," he said. "She brought gifts from The Bushnell to give to anyone she met. She always goes beyond."

In 2012, Spears wrote a memoir about her own experiences as a child in an impoverished world in which music was her happy place. In "The Gift: How Music and Family Saved a Young Girl," Spears shares the deep impact music brought to her life and how it fueled her involvement in the arts. Today, what fuels her is the students that she reaches.

"Every time I go into a classroom, I look into the eyes of so many young geniuses, sitting there waiting for someone to help them turn on the light," she said. "The arts does that in a way that sometimes traditional ways of learning can't."


What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

The legacy that I would hope to leave is centered on the arts, creativity and community building.

I want to be remembered as one of the many individuals who contributed ideas, hard work, creative energy and money to ensure that The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts remains a dynamic and vibrant organization, still delivering its mission, for future generations over the next 100 years.

I want to be remembered as someone who was always seeking knowledge and understood that we can learn something positive from everyone. Someone who knew the value and importance of building a strong and sustainable local, national and global community, regardless of our background, race, ethnicity, gender or spiritual beliefs.

We can accomplish so much more for our communities when we work together.

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