Michelle Walker, a former professional dancer who championed the arts in everyday life and all communities as an influential arts administrator, has died at 53.
Ms. Walker was found Jan. 29 in her Elk Grove home after she apparently died in her sleep, her family said. The cause of death is pending autopsy test results, said her brother, Pierre.
Ms. Walker served from 1992 to 2006 as executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, a city-county agency. She helped steward public art projects that stir regional pride, including an iconic image of the Sacramento River by artist Gregory Kondos etched in the glass facade of a Sacramento International Airport terminal.
She worked to gain public financial aid for struggling performing groups and was instrumental in founding the Sacramento Philharmonic. She created a free arts education program for youngsters in the Oak Park neighborhood and supported Surreal Estates, a development of single-family homes/studios for artists in North Sacramento.
"It was her job to support the whole constellation of arts organizations in Sacramento," said Angela Tahti of PlacerArts. "She spoke out when the orchestra and ballet were having trouble. But her brilliance was in recognizing the need to find ways to help the development of smaller, underdog groups or informal groups that were less known."
Ms. Walker took her message about the arts beyond government officials to the private sector. She established Friends of the Arts Commission to encourage giving in the workplace for arts education and organizations.
Since leaving SMAC, she had raised money for youth arts programs as executive director of the Metropolitan Arts Partnership. She spoke about the importance of educating and exposing people in all walks of life to the arts in a 1993 interview with The Bee.
"Art helps us develop as human beings, because it helps us to explore, create, reach out and develop a new awareness in whatever area," she said.
Born in 1959 in Los Angeles, Michelle Angela Walker grew up with two brothers painting, singing, drawing and playing music. Her mother painted, and her father played drums in a band.
She studied guitar and was a competitive ice skater. She was an accomplished ceramic artist who sold her works to make money and earned a dance degree from California State University, Long Beach.
She formed a dance company and performed on TV on "Soul Train." She earned a master's degree in public administration from California Lutheran University and was assistant education director at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art before settling in Sacramento.
Ms. Walker, who raised a daughter, attributed her work as an arts activist to an "awareness of changing, perfecting and flexibility" that she learned as a young dancer.
"I began to realize that the exposure I had taken for granted, others didn't have," she said. "And I became committed to arts education; what it can do for you as a person and how it can make you explore who you are."