At Large  November 2, 2018  Chandra Noyes

Art Talk: NCMA Director Valerie Hillings

Courtesy NCMA

Valerie Hillings in the NCMA's West Building

Beginning this month, Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) has a new director in Dr. Valerie Hillings. After a worldwide search for Director Dr. Larry Wheeler’s replacement, who was with the museum for 24 years, the museum has found a leader with local roots and global connections. A resident of the area during her undergraduate years at nearby Duke University, Hillings returns to lead this growing museum after over 14 years working the Guggenheim as a curator and leading around the world.

Dr. Hillings took the time to discuss her work for the Guggenheim and the future of the NCMA with Art & Object last month.

Photo by Isaac James

Dr. Valerie Hillings

Chandra Noyes: What is drawing you back to North Carolina and to this role?

Valerie Hillings:  I would say it's the really amazing collection of the museum that was the first and primary driver. I knew I was interested in becoming a director of a museum that was a collecting museum, but this museum, in particular, has a collection that really aligns with what interests me, what my knowledge base is. I actually came to the NCMA often when I was a student at Duke because it was really the museum in town back then, got to know it then, and have followed over the years the evolution of the institution. I've really admired the scale and ambition of the programming, what the museum was doing in terms of its educational initiatives. And these are all things that I was really looking for. But on top of that, it’s an area that I have lived in and been very happy in. My husband is from North Carolina, my in-laws are still in Charlotte, and my parents are in the Virginia side of DC, so for us, looking to be near family and also have an amazing job opportunity: all those stars aligned in the NCMA.

CN: The art scene here has changed quite a bit in those intervening 20 years.

VH: Oh, yes, yes, it has. I have been down a bit, I was on the Nasher [Museum of Art] advisory board for several years, and so I was coming down more regularly, was more tied into what that museum was doing, but through that lens was understanding that a lot of different things were happening, that the area itself was changing so much in terms of what it's offering, what it looks like, even physically. I like to say that I still have a lot to learn when I get there, but certainly all signs point to an incredibly dynamic environment for the arts and for cultural production.

Courtesy NCMA

The North Carolina Museum of Art, East Building

CN: Can you talk a little bit about the work you've been doing for the Guggenheim, it seems like your roles have been pretty diverse. How do you think they have prepared you for this role?

VH: I was at the Guggenheim for 14 and a half years and I curated a lot of exhibitions during that time. I entered the museum to be a curator and immediately became involved in committees that work on building the collection. I was assigned a lot of projects that were international in terms of partnerships or places of presentation. And so I very quickly learned how to go into different contexts and work with different people in different museums to realize really major projects. Curators do a lot more than they probably get credit for, but this wasn't just making a checklist and installing a show, it was negotiating contracts, working to ensure that the right project teams were assembled and working really closely with all the different amazing contributors that make things happen in a museum, from art handlers, to finance department, to graphics and so on. I was working on projects in Berlin and Bilbao and also Las Vegas. I did projects for us at museums in Germany and in Australia. That was really great, because in a way, even though I was with the Guggenheim all those years, I was working within and for different museums all throughout that time. I got to see lots of different ways of working in museums, thinking about how museums run, and that really interested me so much. So when I was asked to join our team in 2009 to work on building this future museum in Abu Dhabi, I was intrigued because I understood fundamentally that it would be a role that would not just be building a collection from scratch, which is an incredible opportunity, but also to be a participant in defining the staffing structure, writing the policies for the museum, and really just imagining and thinking about how operations and content come together and live together. I became more and more to be interested in thinking about how all the pieces and parts of a museum come together, and how to enable those that want to make the shows do their best. I understood pretty early on that I wanted to go down the director track, but in 2016 I did this Center for Curatorial Leadership program here in New York, and that really solidified my interest in becoming a museum director. I was really lucky, my museum director mentor was Jill Medvedow at ICA Boston. I really wanted to have a woman mentor to understand what her experience had been and what she could teach me. And that was that was a very affirming experience. It led me to take a chance and apply for such a big and wonderful job as the one I have just been offered.

Courtesy NCMA

The West Building of the NCMA

CN: [Former NCMA Director] Larry Wheeler is leaving behind quite a legacy, and is very well loved in North Carolina, as I'm sure you know. What do you see as his legacy, and how do you see that shaping your position?

VH: The most obvious legacy is that Larry got that amazing second building built and got the museum park up and running as a really important part of the campus and the experience of the NCMA, and those are just huge, huge achievements, for the public and for the museum. By building that new building he brought a great focus to the amazing collection. I know he, along with his team, has been instrumental in growing the collection, particularly the contemporary collection, but other parts of it as well. So I would say his legacy is that he gave careful attention to the collection but also created these platforms, be they the park or the second building, to have a very varied and very exciting experience with art. Those right there are gigantic legacies from Larry for the museum. And there are certain particular projects in terms of the art that were very much his babies. He was very active in getting different collections and collectors to gift incredible works to the museum. He was both out there thinking about acquisitions and thinking about gifts. He created such a solid foundation for all of that. We were laughing that the last time I was in the museum as a visitor it was before he came, and the museum really was a local state museum, and certainly the profile of the institution has gone well beyond that under his leadership.

CN: Speaking of successes, the summer exhibition You Are Here was the one of the most popular in museum history.

VH: I haven't studied the statistics yet, but that was a great show and [Curator] Linda [Dougherty] did an amazing job and got some great artists to come on. Artists that I've worked with through my lifetime that I think are just the best. It's really the willingness to imagine a show, too, that doesn't just stay within the bounds of the walls. Some of the events and projects they were realizing on the interior of the building and experiential aspect of it and also using that wonderful show as a launch point to announce the [Yayoi] Kusama acquisition, which really brought a lot of profile in the art world to the NCMA. I think that was extremely well thought out and well executed.

CN: That was really exciting. People can't get enough of her right now.

VH: It's amazing. You know, we had these debates when we were talking about the Abu Dhabi collection about the works that people will travel near and far to see. It was funny, we were talking about the big names, Andy Warhol, etcetera, etcetera, and I said, "wait a minute, we have a giant Kusama, that is enough." And it's really great that that's the truth for her, to have a woman artist be that much of a draw.

I should just add another reason I was drawn to the NCMA was the Matrons and of the Arts project, because I'm really interested in women artists. There are some early commitments and strong foundations for that, and that's something I would really like to be a part of advancing even further. Right now with the Candida Höfer and Georgia O'Keeffe up, that's really foundationally stating the case for how important women artists can be in our histories. I definitely really like that they've been looking backwards in earlier periods, that's something that's just really beginning. I was very lucky, I studied with Linda Nochlin, so I got a lot of dosage of “Why have there been no great women artists?” And I just really think [Matrons of the Arts] is a small to medium project that could become a huge project.

Courtesy NCMA

Yayoi Kusama, LIGHT OF LIFE, 2018, mirrored box and LED lighting system. North Carolina Museum of Art.

CN: Along those lines, coming from your experience as a curator, is there any part of the collection that you're particularly excited about working with and excited about expanding?

VH: Twentieth and 21st Century is my area of expertise, and 19th Century because of Linda [Nochlin], so modern and contemporary is definitely my wheelhouse. The museum has made a commitment to representing art up to the present, and that's a scenario that definitely I would want to continue working on. I've been really impressed in my conversations with the curators who are representing earlier periods of art history, and I'm very lucky to have studied all periods of art history. I walk through those galleries, and I feel excited about pretty much all of them because there's some great treasures. I will be studying where the gaps are in those earlier periods as well and where there are opportunities. I know the curators have been doing that, and that there are some great things they're already working on. I definitely want to see us continue to strengthen the American collection, I think that's really an amazing area, and some of the old master areas, I definitely will be looking to study those collections a bit more, and really understand what's there. Quite a lot of them came in with the first acquisitions of the museum in the 1940s, and then a few very important and selective works have come in since then.

Courtesy NCMA

Rodin's The Three Shades installed at the NCMA's West Building

CN: As the state official art museum, the museum is in a unique position. What role do you think it should play and why is it important?

VH: The reason I've been drawn to art and then to museums is that looking at art objects imparts certain skills, analytical skills, as well as aesthetic pleasure. I do believe art objects are a great tool for discussing histories, ideas, concepts, and so for me, a museum’s educational mission is first and foremost. I have begun the process of looking at what the state curriculum looks like, but I really hope to ensure that the schools see the collection as a tool for their curriculum teaching, whether they're actually standing before the object or not. I would really hope that the educational mission can be fulfilled by getting the word out about these objects all through the state, and providing tools to teachers so that they can use art to open conversations, to ask questions. I was really interested in history and political science, and I was so astounded that every time I looked at an object and began to ask myself, “Where did it come from? What is it telling me?”, it took me on a journey of opening books, and reading, and finding out about all these stories that I knew nothing about. I hope that we can use it as a way of raising curiosity about other times and other places.

At this point in time, I think it's important to make sure not to lose all the lessons of history, because history is always being rewritten. That's something I'm also really interested in: how can the museum participate in an ongoing debate about rethinking the history of art, how it's told and what stories we’re looking at. You go back and you look at so many of those truly historic works, and you begin to see these common threads. That's another thing I've been talking with everybody about that I am very interested in: how you can look at the collection in a way that goes across time so that you can see these through-lines to where the points of distinction lie.

CN: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me!

VH: Thank you!

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra is managing editor for Art & Object.