Introducing the Fifth President of UArts, Kerry Walk
Kerry Walk, PhD, became University of the Arts’ fifth president in August. A champion of student learning and success in the arts, President Walk is the first woman to assume the UArts presidency—in fact, the first woman to lead the university since 1876, when the first school that would evolve into UArts was founded. Over the past few months, her energy and enthusiasm have been palpable on campus and in the Philadelphia community.
“Kerry is a proven dynamic leader in higher education who espouses the values that shape UArts’ extraordinary university community,” said Judson A. Aaron BM ’81 (Saxophone), chair of the Board of Trustees. “As a highly experienced college president passionate about arts education, she is the perfect person to capitalize on our momentum as UArts embraces its next chapter. Perhaps more importantly, it is clear she believes deeply in our cross-disciplinary educational imperative, which aims to nurture our students’ ability to think, adapt, and innovate in preparation for professional success and a rich, creative life.”
Through 10 questions, President Walk discusses UArts, its community and talent, and her background and relationship to the arts.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of UArts so far?
A: At UArts, everyone is living and breathing creativity, and it’s invigorating to be in this kind of environment. Plus the quality of student work is astonishingly high. I walk around campus in a constant state of awe at what our students are making and doing.
Q: Where did you attend college, and what did you study?
A: I went to Wellesley College, outside Boston. I was a molecular biology major until I got bitten by the theater bug in my junior year, and I was hooked. My senior thesis was about the literary influences of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and also about a production a classmate and I directed and produced. It was thrilling.
Q: What compelled you to study Shakespeare?
A: Really the question is who compelled me to study Shakespeare. I have to thank many teachers and mentors who guided me along the way. I’ve seen so many productions, I’ve lost count. The most recent was a hilarious UArts production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was fabulous! I went to graduate school specifically to study Shakespeare and ended up focusing on the cultural outpouring related to Shakespeare’s works since his death. It’s staggering, including fine art, music, film, animation, dance, creative writing, and of course theater. There’s even a video game based on Shakespeare.
Q: What was your first position in higher education?
A: My first job out of grad school was at Harvard, where I taught and also took my first steps into higher education leadership. A few jobs later, I was the provost of an art and design college in Los Angeles, and from there I became the president of a college in New York with nationally ranked programs in dance and theater. And now I’m at UArts—the dream job! It puts it all together for me.
Q: Why is a degree in the arts important?
A: UArts’ mission, to advance human creativity, has never been more important or more compelling than it is today. As UArts students and alumni have demonstrated over the university’s nearly 150-year history, artists and creative thinkers are at the forefront of innovation and meaningful social and economic change.
Q: What are your top three priorities for academic year 2023-24?
A: UArts has a distinctive mission, and my overall goal is to tap into the university’s potential as the most compelling destination for arts education in the world. As I’ve shared with faculty and staff, for me that means doubling down in three areas. First, ensuring that the education students receive erases the boundaries between the arts. Like most professional artists, our students want to fuse artistic media and disciplines to create work that’s fresh, provocative, and unique. Second, I’m focused on strong professional outcomes for UArts students. That means expanding the pipeline to internships and jobs in our region’s booming creative economy. Third, I want UArts to become brightly visible, considered to be the gold standard in arts education.
Q: When and where are you most inspired?
A: Immersive spaces inspire me—spaces in which I can forget myself and become fully engaged in experiences that transcend my day-to-day life. As a scuba diver, I take immersion literally and have found inspiration around the world, from the ocean waters off the Jersey shore to the glacial waters of Iceland to the depths of the South Pacific. Arts spaces are equally immersive for me. I fell in love with books at a very early age, but any kind of art form can transport me almost instantly to another realm. It’s magic.
Q: What’s your all-time favorite play?
A: Oh, please. Hamlet. Of course.
Q: What advice would you give to a young artist?
A: Tell your family to calm down, you’re going to be employed! The Philadelphia area is an arts and culture powerhouse, and there are tens of thousands of jobs in the region’s $4 billion creative economy. The arts rule!
Q: What has your favorite meal in Philly been so far?
A : I know you think I’m going to say Philly cheesesteak, but I have to say—Philly pizza. There’s nothing else like it.