Hamza Walker

Hamza Walker, curator for the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune / March 7, 2013)

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.