I first met Mayor Walaker in 2010, the week before I actually took over the position of executive director of The Arts Partnership. The previous ED, Martha Keeler-Olsen, and I went to meet him for an annual update on the arts meeting. I remember being kind of awed when I was introduced to him. He was much larger in person than I had imagined he would be, but he was also attentive to all that Martha had to report.
The next year, I had my own meeting with the Mayor. Community Development Manager Dan Mahli and I met together with the Mayor in his office. He was far less interested in my expressions of gratitude for the funding the City had given The Arts Partnership. Instead, he wanted to talk about how much he enjoyed seeing art when he traveled. He had a big family trip planned to the East Coast that fall, and he was looking forward to going to some museums and seeing a musical on Broadway.
I left that meeting pleasantly surprised that someone I had pre-determined would not appreciate art certainly did not live up to my assumptions. He spoke frankly about the need for more funding for arts and culture in the metro; he understood that they provide a tremendous value and are a necessary component to a healthy community.
I had the opportunity to have many more interactions with the Mayor over these last four and a half years, and each time I was left with a stronger impression that actually, a man like Dennis Walaker was the perfect man to be leading our city. He was not a “traditional” arts supporter; he certainly attended the occasional arts event and even served on some arts boards, but he was not a typical patron of the arts.
What he was, however, was someone who understood that even if he didn’t personally attend or actively support all the arts, they were absolutely pivotal to the continued growth and success of our community. He clearly understood that investing in the arts is not a standard charitable investment; rather, investing in the arts encourages entrepreneurship, assists in job creation and retention, attracts new business, creates a sense of place and makes for an overall stronger community.
The last time I saw Mayor Walaker was at the November City Commission meeting where they unanimously approved the creation of the Public Art and Culture Commission, the first in the state of North Dakota.
While I was shocked by the Mayor’s physical decline, I was thrilled by his enthusiasm for this new Commission and its importance to the future of this great city.
Mayor Walaker will always be publicly remembered for his flood fighting ability; he was tenacious in his efforts to save our city, and he richly deserves those accolades. I will personally remember him, however, as the perfect kind of leader because he was able to look beyond his own self-interests and recognize that for a city to reach its full potential, it needs a wide array of amenities and activities so that all its citizens have access to the broad spectrum of sports, education, entertainment, culture and the arts. That’s the true mark of a leader, and I will miss his quiet support of the arts and culture as an integral piece of the fabric that makes up our community.
Images, from top: John Volk, ‘The Mayor, After Warhol (detail),’ screen print, 2013, courtesy of the artist; Walaker at this summer’s unveiling of a new mural by artist Magda Szeitz at the Red River Zoo, photo by Dennis Krull.