Posted on January 06 2020
Q&A with Dr. Valerie Hillings
In the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle, we carved out time to catch up with the Director of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), Dr. Valerie Hillings. She’s bringing a fresh perspective to the collection, championing diverse exhibitions, and fostering connections between art and the community. Join us for Happy Hour at Vert & Vogue Friday, January 17 from 5:30-6:30 pm to hear Dr. Hillings talk about re-envisioning the collection and the corollary of commissions and programming that put art at the center. Tickets are free and drinks are on the house. RSVP to reserve your spot!
Dr. Valerie Hillings became director of the North Carolina Museum of Art in November 2018. She became familiar with NCMA during her time at Duke University, earning her B.A in Art History. She went on to receive a Ph.D. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and, since 2004, she has held senior positions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation.
During her tenure at the Guggenheim, Dr. Hillings rose through the curatorial ranks and curated more than 15 exhibitions on four continents. In 2009 she joined the Guggenheim’s dedicated Abu Dhabi Project staff, tasked with planning for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a museum of modern and contemporary art currently under development. In addition to her Guggenheim projects, Dr. Hillings has published and publicly lectured on curatorial practice and on various topics in post–World War II art history and contemporary art.
With an artist mother and airline lobbyist father, you grew up visiting museums all over the world. It’s not typical for children to love visiting museums with their parents. What captivated you about this experience at a young age? Is there one that influenced your love of museums most?
I have always been fascinated by history and the way in which objects can serve as a portal to stories and ideas. For instance, I used to play with Barbie dolls, but it was never really about the dolls themselves but about using them as conduits to make up plot lines. I also went with my mom to the Torpedo Factory in Old Town, Alexandria, where she was taking painting classes from members of the DC School of Painting, specifically Hank Harmon, and so art was part of my life from the get-go. I would say the Smithsonian museums, among them the National Museums of Air & Space and American History and the National Gallery influenced my love of museums most. I lived in DC during the era of blockbuster exhibitions and remember especially when Princess Diana inaugurated the “Treasure Houses of Britain” show alongside National Gallery director J. Carter Brown.
As a woman in a male-dominated position, what was it like to take this directorship?
I honestly have been fortunate not to feel hindered by my gender. I went to an all-girls school through high school, and my parents always encouraged me in a way that made me feel like I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I had an incredible and generous not to mention inspiring female mentor in college who reinforced the power of what she calls “always staying hungry,” and I call “walking through the fire to get to the other side.”
With a unique and younger perspective than the typical director, what obstacles did you overcome on your way to this opportunity? Lessons learned?
In the course of my career before coming to North Carolina, I worked in various contexts where it is assumed that being a woman could be a disadvantage. I found that age and nationality (also seniority) were more potent issues to overcome, and I persevered through a lot of different challenges to gain the wisdom and experience to be prepared to make the leap to director. During that time, I benefited also from a series of male mentors who were leaders in the art world and entrusted me with great responsibility and also gave their feedback so I could continue to improve. Specifically, they got me to focus on the bigger picture, a major step in my growth as a leader. I learned through the years that building solid relationships based on honesty, reliability, and the ability to communicate in a variety of ways to a variety of audiences is imperative. Upon arrival at the NCMA, I had to build entirely new networks, so I set about doing my homework and giving attention to both similar and distinctive aspects of my new museum and my new home.
How do you hope to impact the next wave of female museum directors and curators coming up?
I see two goals with respect to this: 1) Work hard and do a good job to demonstrate that women can lead museums with larger budgets. 2) Support opportunities for students and young professionals to gain experience and have a voice in what the museum is doing. And this is not aimed exclusively at female professionals, my hope is to support the further diversification of the leadership pool for museums.
Part of what attracted you to the NCMA opportunity was its Matrons of the Arts initiative and, in the past year, you’ve ignited passion in your team and together created incredible experiences for the community like The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe + Contemporary Art and the Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism exhibitions. What’s your biggest takeaway from 2019?
I have been energized throughout my career by discovering artists who were not included in the “art historical canon,” many of them women. I am excited to see that presenting exhibitions and programs featuring artists from diverse backgrounds has attracted visitors, and I also credit the work my team has done with community groups to make these shows meaningful for audiences we haven’t traditionally attracted. My biggest takeaway comes from the confluence of what I have seen onsite and in the course of my travels in the state. Art and culture matter and there is talent and passion that the museum should and can help to nurture through our onsite programs and outreach. We are in the process of defining the future of this Matrons of the Arts initiative so stay tuned.
As we head into 2020 and a new decade, what’s your wildest dream for the museum? Any teasers you can give us?
To begin to transform the collection displays to spark conversation by presenting new and diverse narratives. To start work on a major exhibition to be originated by the NCMA.
A major exhibition originated by NCMA! That would be exciting! In the current collection, what is a work of art you’re particularly jazzed about right now?
I am excited about Jaume Plensa’s Doors of Jerusalem I, II, and III (2006). I asked to move them from the entrance of our West Building to the exhibition level of our East Building, and in this context, they have taken on a majestic quality and are really framing the space and directing you to them. I think it’s essential to let artworks lead people through the spaces and campus.
I love that a piece in a new environment can take on a new life. In the spirit of letting artwork be your guide, how would you recommend someone visiting NCMA for the first time take in the museum? If they wanted to see as much as possible in one day - how would you hack the museum? Where should they start, finish and eat in between?
I would suggest starting with the collection, which is free and offers many types of art; also, it’s the core of our identity. Right now, I would recommend checking out our series of “Interchanges,” unexpected pairings that bring together works from different times and places to investigate universal subjects such as portraiture and highlight the relationship between so-called historic art and contemporary art. As we like to say, all art starts out as contemporary and with time becomes historic. After that, I would recommend a visit to our special exhibitions, which currently take the visitor on a journey to 20th-century Mexico and feature the paintings of North Carolina musician Scott Avett. For lunch, there are two options, our signature restaurant Iris and our Frida and Diego pop-up offering tacos and other fare inspired by the exhibition. I would conclude the visit with a stroll through our Museum Park, which features multiple art installations and a beautiful natural landscape.
In your free time (ha!), what are some of the things you love to do in the Triangle?
I am a foodie, so I have been enjoying getting to know the local culinary scene. I also recently got a puppy, so I am spending a lot of time with him.
And, as it is Happy Hour, tell us your favorite beverage to sip while taking in an exhibit or collection.
I am something of an oenophile, so Champagne, Sancerre, or Cabernet Sauvignon.