Michelle Ebanks, who most recently served as the president of Essence Communications, the global media and communications company dedicated to Black women, will be the next president and chief executive of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the organization announced on Tuesday.
“I have a deep understanding of the value of cultural institutions and their profound impact on individual lives and society, and the Apollo Theater as one of the nation’s greatest cultural institutions,” Ebanks said in an interview on Monday.
Ebanks, 61, replaces the theater’s longtime leader, Jonelle Procope, who announced last year that she planned to step down this summer after nearly 20 years steering the Harlem organization, which she transformed from a struggling nonprofit to the largest African American performing arts presenting organization in the country.
The appointment comes at a critical time for the theater, which is wrapping up an $80 million capital fund-raising campaign to fully renovate its 109-year-old building, with construction set to begin next year and the first cultural programs in the new space planned for spring 2025. Along with a new lobby cafe and bar that will be open to the public, plans include added and upgraded seating, new lighting and audio systems and updates to the building’s exterior. The main theater will be closed during at least part of the renovation, but programming will be presented at the Victoria theaters, and will also continue at the Apollo.
Ebanks, who holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Florida, led Essence Communications for 18 years and helped grow the company into a global franchise that now includes Essence, the life-style magazine for Black women; Essence.com; and the Essence Festival, the brand’s annual live music event that draws hundreds of thousands of people to New Orleans each year.
It was her experience with the Essence Festival specifically that was one of the primary draws for the Apollo, said Charles E. Phillips, chairman of the theater’s board.
“She understood really well the kind of artistic content that people would respond to with the Essence Festival,” he said in a phone interview on Monday. “At the same time, she has business experience as well.”
Her focus, she said, will be on continuing the existing partnerships the Apollo has with early-career creators and organizations in Harlem and the nation, and expanding them.
“I want to reach as many different audiences as possible,” she said. “The impact of arts and music on society is immeasurable, and we need as many stories told from those emerging artists as possible.”
Ebanks will assume her new position in July.