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New Division of Arts Director Chris Walker, no stranger to UW, puts focus on arts & activism


New University of Wisconsin Division of Arts Director Chris Walker has been at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for many years now. He arrived as a visiting faculty member and worked in the Dance Department, the School of Education and as the founding artistic director of the First Wave Scholarship Program. While reflecting on where he began at UW, he talked about how his journey and work at the UW has come full circle.

“I had two pieces of choreography on the Union Theater stage for an event called Arts Night Out, which was put on by the Arts Institute,” Walker said. “Which brought together all the arts units like performance and engagement activities, throughout the afternoon and evening on a particular day. So, the very first performance activity I participated in was by (what is now) the Division of the Arts. That was a fantastic welcome to the campus. To see what other people are doing, to see the level of research that was happening in the creative areas, to see the diversity of that research. And I wouldn’t admit it to folks, but I felt like I was hooked from as early as then.”

That was in 2006. Walker was the artistic director of First Wave in its first eight years, from 2007 until 2016, then returned two and half years ago under Sofía Snow, the current Director of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives and First Wave. Walker emphasized the importance of alumni involvement and leadership throughout the First Wave Program. Snow and James Gavins, the OMAI Arts Education Outreach Specialist, are alumni of First Wave and their leadership and understanding of the program makes it what it is today. First Wave values paying it forward and their alumni give back to the program in many different ways, with artivism at the focus of their work.

“What we now call ‘artivism’ is the core of their expression,” Walker said. “The First Wave Pillars are art, academics, and activism. Where those three things come together to create change in your community, in the spaces that matter for you. And so, the First Wave program was rooted in those ideas and those philosophies. And we started that a year after I came here and worked collaboratively with many folks on campus and in community to develop new curriculum. These were all new ideas. New ways of building communities on campus, new ways of centering student voices.”

Walker values students’ access to creativity. He understands the importance of students’ engagement with the arts and is focused on incorporating that into curriculum for all students at UW-Madison.

“It’s about student development and student growth,” said Walker. “And what we call the Wisconsin experience. When you come into UW-Madison and when you leave. That period, the Wisconsin experience. There is the very focused academic work that you do and that is articulated in your transcript. But outside of that, there is this community and culture and art engagement that is a part of developing the citizen. Who then leaves college and contributes to society. The Division of the Arts centers all the art practices and allows students to have those types of access through their undergraduate and graduate careers.”

This academic year, the Division of the Arts will be focusing on introducing new faculty, new programs, and reconnecting the arts on campus. Their website is a source for arts events, news, and highlights from across UW-Madison.

The first public upcoming event that includes Arun Luthra, their fall interdisciplinary artist-in-residence, is the Jazz at Five series. This performance features the UW-Madison Jazz Ensemble and Johannes Wallmann Quintet and Arun Luthra will make a guest performance. This free and public event takes place on Wednesday, Sept. 1 at 5 p.m. To learn more information about this event, click here.