You can't have a short conversation with Hamza Walker. The guy likes to talk. A lot.
He's been chatting with a visitor for a couple of hours now, seated behind the desk of his light-filled office at The Renaissance Society, the small yet highly regarded contemporary art museum on the University of Chicago campus where he holds dual posts as director of education and associate curator.
Walker hasn't once scanned a cellphone for messages. He hasn't even checked his watch.
When Hamza Walker is with you, he is with you.
He's also really funny. He has a goofy laugh and a tendency to go off on tangents. Ask him a question, and he'll answer it, but before he does, he may stray so far from the original point you'll forget what you were talking about in the first place.
“It's the terroir, man,” Walker is saying. Terroir, a French term, describes the set of factors — soil, environment, genetics — that gives things like wine, coffee, or cheese their unique characteristics. Walker's trying to get at the qualities that make U. of C. the sort of place it is — bookish, intense, intellectually curious and, at the same time, a bastion of traditionalism. Also kinda nerdy.
A colleague pops her head through the doorway to remind him he only has a few minutes before his next meeting. Walker thanks her, then keeps right on talking.
“That's what grows in that soil — that's why it tastes that way. The University of Chicago is a serious, craggy-ass soil. Mineral-y, nasty terroir,” he adds, laughing.
He should know — Walker's a product of that soil. Not only has he worked at The Renaissance Society — aka “the Ren” — for 18 years, he majored in art history at U. of C., though he was a few term papers shy of actually getting his bachelor of arts.
“I didn't technically finish — I just stopped,” is the way he puts it. “I was writing about German expressionist prints, but I was more interested in contemporary art.”
Paper, whether in the form of a baccalaureate degree or a business card, doesn't seem to matter much to Walker. He's old school, the type of curator who is genuinely — and in his case, maybe even compulsively — interested in ideas for their own sake. He especially likes talking about ideas with other people.
“There's no music, no script — it's all improvised,” he says of public conversations he stages with artists during the Ren's opening receptions. “You have your horn, I have my horn and we're gonna hit it.”
As director of education, Walker is responsible for all of the museum's public programming, not just gallery tours but poetry readings, lectures, film screenings, even a contemporary chamber music concert series.
He also curates a significant number of the shows in the Ren's 3,200-square-foot Bergman Gallery, including the exhibition of black-and-white photographs by Chicago artist John Neff that's on view now.
“I like the change-up,” Walker says of the freedom his two-track titles give him. “That's actually proven to be more (satisfying) than if I'd gone into a strictly visual art path.”
On top of everything, Walker is also an acclaimed and widely published writer and essayist — though he's the first to admit “I'm late with everything.”
Late or no, Walker has achieved a level of success most curators only dream of. In 2010, he received the much-coveted, $100,000 Ordway Prize, an unrestricted cash award given to an outstanding contemporary art curator between the ages of 40 and 65. (Walker is in his mid-40s.) And in 2004, he won the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, given by the Menil Collection to outstanding curators in the early stages of their careers.
Not bad for someone who never finished his bachelor's.
At U. of C., Walker studied art history and worked as a DJ on a jazz show for WHPK-FM 88.5. Later, he got involved with Southend Musicworks, also known as the “nomads of modern music,” a roving music production cooperative whose shows had a small but devoted following.
“The visual arts were one thing, but Southend was, like, my heart,” Walker recalls. “Every Friday and Saturday night. Some insane gigs went down.” His nostalgia for those days is evident.
“It was like, ‘we are going to go and hear a man crumple a piece of aluminum foil over a microphone'” — here, Walker makes a kkk-kkk-kkk sound — “‘and it's going to be the most amazing thing you've ever seen …' And the eight people in the room were like, ‘no (expletive) way!'”
After college, he got a job with Urban Gateways, an arts education organization, then worked for the city of Chicago's public art program. It was the early 1990s. Walker talks about the close friends he made back then — Peter Taub (now the Museum of Contemporary Art's director of performing arts programs), the artist Helen Mirra, Kerry James Marshall (“I helped him put a roof on his house”).
Then, in 1994, the job at the Ren came along.
Though it's nearly 100 years old, there are still plenty of folks in Chicago who've never heard of The Renaissance Society. But in the art world at large, it's a renowned beacon for people who take their contemporary art seriously.
Too seriously, some would argue. Though the gallery isn't large, the place sometimes feels intimidating. It's certainly austere: There are no wall texts, no docents. Walker says that's not meant to put you off — it's about drawing you in. The best way to approach difficult art isn't through a wall label, he says. Pay attention to what you see, and let that guide you.
“Just go into the deep end. You'll come out with something more profound in the end, I think, that's worthy of why you came here in the first place.”
Walker approaches curating this way too. He says that, when planning solo exhibitions, he doesn't cherry-pick work from an artist's studio; he lets the artist take the lead in deciding what to show.
“You have to respect where their head is and where they want to (go),” he explains. “The best artists have accepted the possibility — the right — to fail.”
It's an ethos that endears him to artists.
“Hamza's not ‘flat' — he defies Chicago's Midwestern topography,” says Anna Shteynshleyger, whose 2010 solo show at the Ren was curated by Walker.
Shteynshleyger says there were challenging aspects to the photographs she exhibited, which looked at contemporary Jewish identity, particularly in Orthodox communities. Her images, she notes dryly, “didn't have immediate commercial appeal.”
Walker didn't care. He had the insight, Shteynshleyger recalls, to glean what the work was really dealing with: the artist's own crisis of faith and its impact on the way she took pictures.
“He totally gets it,” she says. “He knows how to support artists.”
Neff seconds this. “People talk about ‘artists' artists' — well, Hamza Walker is an ‘artists' curator,'” he wrote via email the morning after his Ren show opened.
That might be because Walker thinks the way a lot of artists think — not in straight lines, but from multiple angles at once.
“In the middle of whatever,” says Shteynshleyger, “he'll start talking about ancient history, or the Stone Age, or God knows what.” Walker's thought process, she says, takes “meandering paths. It's not A to B; it's more like A to F, then to B.”
Suzanne Ghez, the Ren's longtime executive director, characterizes Walker as “an incredibly interesting thinker.” In particular, she cites his ability to “provoke artists into revealing personal insights” that help audiences better understand the full complexities of an artwork.
Walker's desire to do a show of Neff's current photographs stems from his own interest in personal stories, namely autobiography, or, as Walker puts it, “that turn (in an artist's trajectory) where you feel confident enough to really speak from a first-person point of view.”
Many of Neff's images portray artist-friends from his own social circle: Doug Ischar, Elijah Burgher. Some are simple still life tableaux, others sensual nudes. A few are explicitly homoerotic. Neff made all of them with digital scanners outfitted with antique camera parts, which gives the images a grainy, hazy aura. They're utterly of-the-moment, yet there's a wistfulness there too.
Really, though, Neff is saying everything he wants to say about himself through his portrayals of his friends and surroundings — his social milieu. It's easy to see why Walker gets it. That's what he does too.
Last year Ghez announced that she will step down after nearly 40 years at the Ren's helm. The museum's board selected Solveig Ovstebo, director of the Bergen Kunsthall, a noncollecting contemporary art center in Norway that's not unlike the Ren, to succeed her, beginning sometime in early summer.
It makes you wonder. What's kept Walker in Chicago all these years, given that nowadays, most contemporary art curators routinely hop from city to city, even country to country, going from one professional gig to the next, bigger one.
When asked, Walker brings up the usual reasons: he has kids, friendships, personal relationships. But then, he homes in further in that roundabout way of his.
“It's a place to do things. I don't care how … you can work at the Whitney, you can do project spaces in bigger museums … but what's more important is freedom,” he says. “I talk to colleagues, and they'll say, ‘My next show is in 2016.' I'm like … in 2016 I might not be alive!”
John Neff is on view through April 14 at The Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Avenue, Cobb Hall, Room 418; free; 773-702-8670 or renaissancesociety.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun