Meet the new director
The new executive director of the Nevada Museum of Art enthusiastically faces the challenges of guiding the Biggest Little City’s artistic direction
“You cannot deconstruct Reno,” writes Tom Chiarella, in the now locally infamous Esquire article in which he assesses the city as No. 12 out of 100 something-or-other people, places or things that everyone should be paying close attention to right now.
“It’s ruddy and rock hard, self-evident and openhearted,” notes Chiarella of the Biggest Little City. “Reno is of a whole. It is a city, not an event.”
But not so fast. Before we start building a border fence to our southwest in hopes of preventing carloads of American Apparel-clad artsters looking for “the dirtiest secret in Nevada” from coming en masse and tainting the pure cultural waters with their weirdo haircuts and shiny black tight-pant culture, it’s important to note that Chiarella is just the latest in a succession of transient blowhards, starting with the great Mark Twain himself, who’ve come to the Truckee Meadows and claimed to understand us better than we do.
Through the years, Renoites have learned the survivalist trick of greeting with suspicion anyone from the Big City trying to tell us how we should live and what we should like.
The geography conspires with the rugged terrain and the rain shadow of the Sierra to isolate us, maybe even quarantine us from certain Western influences. Isolation breeds paranoia, sure. But it also breeds a kind of purity that is hard to qualify and even harder to reproduce, unless one is on the ground and living in it daily.
Enter Southern Californian David B. Walker, former gallery curator, associate in an investment firm specializing in management buyouts and editor and publisher of Element magazine. And now new executive director of cultural touchstone, the Nevada Museum of Art. The man has his work cut out for him.
Meet David Walker
We Renoites have a natural tendency toward suspicion when someone from California moves here and takes it up the duty of saving us from ourselves, culturally speaking. We know full well that we are in no need of saving—that we have an albeit small but nonetheless thriving and dynamic art scene. But whenever someone so far removed from the mood and climate of our community decides to bring us into the “modern world,” they are often confronted with a healthy dose of cynicism.
I admit it was with this attitude that I first met with David Walker. I thought, “OK, who’s this new guy who’s gonna try and make us more L.A., more Manhattan, or, heaven forbid, more … Las Vegas?”
Much to my surprise, the man I met not only had a well-informed perspective on just who it is we are, but he also has no intention of attempting to make us over into some outsider’s idea of where we should be in our expression of the arts.
Walker describes the obvious contrast between the Los Angeles area where he grew up and the Northern Nevada region. “One of the things that I noticed up here right away—after being here for about a month—I hadn’t heard a single person say anything bad about another person, and if I had, it was very minor. Whereas in L.A. that’s the rule! I find, for me, that L.A. is a pretty intense place. It’s just the most critical environment.”
Any longtime resident of Washoe County knows that we do indulge in our own fair share of gossip, but when compared to the fast-paced, nature of L.A., it’s fair to assume that Reno offers an assuaging alternative.
Not only is Walker relieved to escape Los Angeles, he seems to see Reno as being a unique contrast to the mindset found all over Southern California. In fact, it’s a central tenet of his methodology to embrace our own brand of artful expression, then build on it, promote it and hopefully elevate our often misunderstood, even underestimated cultural prowess. It is his intention to see Reno’s nonpareil style appreciated on a national scale.
Walker looks at his past
To be recognized and respected nationally, one must first have a grasp on the climate of the national art community whose appreciation you hope to harvest. A look at Walker’s resume reveals a rich, well-traveled wealth of creditable accomplishments. Born and raised in Santa Monica, Walker went on to major in art at Humboldt State University and attended graduate school at the School of Art Design in Los Angeles before moving ever forward to start Element, his own successful internationally distributed arts quarterly. After running his own art gallery for about two-and-a-half years, he and his wife grew tired of the L.A. smogosphere.
“You know, it was really great,” Walker says, “… but then there was the whole O.J. thing, there were floods, there were fires, there were all these things, so my wife and I decided to get out.”
They relocated to Santa Barbara, where Walker spent the next several years writing for a Santa Barbara art magazine. It was at this time that his rock band Blackworm ("an ironic riff on the band Whitesnake") was signed to Warner Brothers Records.
“I had been in a band previously that had been signed to Chrysalis … we did the whole Jane’s Addiction/L7 thing, playing shows with Social Distortion and that whole scene,” he explains. But Walker’s dedication was to art more than music, so he wanted to get more serious about entering back into the critical flow of things in New York and L.A. He accepted a leadership position at the Art Center College of Design (ACCD), a prominent international design school, in Pasadena, Calif.
During his time at the ACCD, Walker was instrumental in revamping an old wind tunnel that had once been used in the testing of airplane engines into a widely respected gallery that featured many of the world’s most esteemed artists.
“We were able to raise a great deal of money in a short-order,” says Walker. “We turned it into sort of our public face. It was a huge space … and it was a very successful project. We opened that in 2004, and we had just a real dynamic range of programs: educational programs for kids, exhibitions, conferences. It was really fun and very successful and managed to generate a lot of funds for the college.”
And it’s exactly that type of “dynamic range” and attention to community that Walker intends to bring to the NMA.
Walker looks at Reno’s future
The vision Walker has for the community transcends grand exhibits featuring big names in the art world, although we will be seeing man names of prominence in art, film, architecture and design featured in Northern Nevada’s home gallery. But Walker only sees that as a starting point and an opportunity for local talent to be exposed to the wider art world so that they can use that knowledge and exposure to further their unique voices. Exposure to world-renown talent is a building block for Reno artists to mold and transform into an end product that better reflects the local environment.
Walker also hopes to bolster the art of architecture and design by implementing a kind of internship.
“Teens and young adults will be able to go and study with a local architect, a local designer, a local photographer in their studios, and from that they’ll get a better understanding of what that field is like.
“It doesn’t tell the world anything about us to bring in exhibitions that other institutions have originated,” he says. “It’s nice to bring those shows in for the local community, but I think we’re at the point now where we’re ready to step it up.”