Meet Valerie Hillings (T’93), Director of the North Carolina Museum of Art
Hillings reflects on her expansive arts career, from working at the Guggenheim to her new role as director of the North Carolina Museum of Art. She discusses her work as a global arts curator and offers advice to students interested in creative careers.
Valerie Hillings (T’93) was appointed director of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in October 2018. Welcome back to North Carolina, Valerie!
Hillings recently chatted with student members of Duke’s Creative Arts Student Team (CASTs) about her career path and time at Duke, as well as how her deep appreciation for language and cultures has shaped her work as a global arts curator and leader. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you initially become interested in art history and how did your Duke experiences shape your arts career?
Art was always part of my family life. I grew up in D.C. and my family went to a lot of museums. My mother was also a painter and my dad worked for the airlines, so I remember going to art classes with my mom and traveling to Europe to see art. By junior year of high school, I intended to go into politics. When I came to Duke, I started out taking political science and enjoyed the subject, but my second semester of freshman year I decided to take “Art History: Renaissance to the Present” with Kristine Stiles. That really was a turning point in my career interests, because the way in which Professor Stiles brought history and politics into her teaching was amazing. I ultimately decided to pursue a double major in Political Science and Art, and I co-curated with fellow student Lisa Costantino an exhibition on contemporary art for my senior thesis in the Duke University Museum of Art (predecessor to the Nasher Museum of Art). Not only did we collaborate with amazing artists like Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, and Mike Kelley, but I also learned how to be fearless in choosing art and thinking about its importance to the community.
Q: What was it like working and studying art in New York? How did you get started at the Guggenheim?
After graduation, I headed to New York to earn my M.A. and Ph.D. in art history at NYU. I loved being with artwork and art objects and I became really interested in pursuing a career as a curator.I also taught at NYU on a variety of art history topics and discovered that I loved teaching. For a while after my Ph.D. I was mostly freelancing—teaching, writing, and giving lectures. At some point in early 2004 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York was looking for a curatorial assistant for a show that my former professor was curating. I remember going in for my interview and learning that the job was filled. However, because my dissertation was multinational, the museum’s chief curator thought I would be a perfect fit for the Guggenheim, a global organization. I was hired as a curatorial assistant. Early on, I had the opportunity to co-curate the major exhibition, RUSSIA!, which was a dream project given I had specialized in Russian art. In spite of my junior title, I had the opportunity to develop the checklist and program, manage the catalog publication process, install the show with a team of prominent Russian curators, and coordinate with the Office of President Vladimir Putin on confirming his official patronage and inauguration of the show.
Q: After 14 years at the Guggenheim, how did you transition to your current role as director of the North Carolina Museum of Art?
Throughout my time at the Guggenheim, I traveled and developed exhibitions all across the world: Bilbao, Berlin, Bonn, Las Vegas, Melbourne, and Abu Dhabi. I led the team that built a collection from the ground up for the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum. I gained a lot of management and directorial skills throughout this time, learning how to build international teams and work on large-scale projects. A couple of years after my fellowship at the Center for Curatorial Leadership, which included courses taught by professors at Columbia Business School and a residency with Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, this job at the North Carolina Museum of Art became available. The process of applying and interviewing was both rewarding and challenging. While I had a wealth of experience and came from a global stage, I doubted myself at times. I presented my credentials and personality as honestly as possible, and in the end, I was the right fit for the museum, and the museum was the right fit for me.
I’ve been at the NCMA for five months, trying to learn everything I can, and I am constantly meeting both new and familiar communities from around the state, including Duke and Durham.
Q: What are you most excited about in your current role and what advice do you have for students interested in creative careers—especially on a global level?
I’m really excited about the outreach we are doing with colleges in the area, and I think it’s important that we reach out to students who are not in the arts to build a diverse and dynamic community.
I think having an understanding of people from varied backgrounds and origins is really valuable because you are able to understand and open yourself to more, and to that end I highly recommend getting out into the world and realizing all the things that we have in common. I have enjoyed a remarkable journey through Europe, the Middle East, and Australia. I have met some incredible human beings who all care about the arts on a global level, and they realize how art can make a difference in people’s lives.
I would also say that the best thing about Duke is that you have a vast and strong network of people. You have access to alumni who have moved into these careers through DEMAN. I think most people probably didn’t know how to navigate creative careers when I was an undergraduate at Duke. Find a person who you can connect with. Chances are they are probably someone who started out in a different field but discovered their creative career interests over the course of time.