‘A museum is not just a place.’ New director of NC Museum of Art dreams big.

Two months in, NC Museum of Art’s new director shares her vision

Succeeding Larry Wheeler and his 24-year run, the new NC Museum of Art's director, Valerie Hillings, shares her vision for the public institution. She hopes to honor its history while also making her mark with fresh ideas.
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Succeeding Larry Wheeler and his 24-year run, the new NC Museum of Art's director, Valerie Hillings, shares her vision for the public institution. She hopes to honor its history while also making her mark with fresh ideas.

Valerie Hillings has been on the job as new director of the NC Museum of Art since Nov. 1 — just long enough to start thinking about a to-do list.

She follows in the footsteps of former director Larry Wheeler, whose 24-year tenure ended with his retirement. She was selected in October after a nationwide search.

And while her plans for the museum’s future direction are not specific just yet, we spoke with Hillings about her initial thoughts about her new role.

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1. It’s good to be back in North Carolina.

Hillings grew up in Virginia but has deep ties to North Carolina, most notably from her time at Duke University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from Duke in 1993, going on to graduate school at New York University, followed by a long run at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation.

“I grew up with a mother from Tennessee and an orientation sort of naturally more toward the South,” Hillings said in an interview at the museum this month. “I’m an East Coast person but not necessarily Northeast. When you go and look at universities, you suddenly find where you need to be. Duke felt like that.

“A lot of my colleagues in New York were surprised I was moving on after being at the Guggenheim for nearly 15 years. But if there’s one thing people know about me, it’s my love of Duke University. So almost none of them were surprised at where I was going.”

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2. Speaking of Duke...

Hillings was a student at Duke during its initial golden age of basketball and remains a big, big fan.

“I was really lucky to be at Duke during the back-to-back championship years with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill. The spirit and community around sports was always so inspiring, the way we’d run off into campus to celebrate together. That was really energizing for all of us.”

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RAL_20181220_hillingsncma_C (3)
Since taking her new role as director of the North Carolina Museum of Art on Nov. 1st, Valerie Hillings has begun making her mark on the public institution saying, “I am a curator by training [...] so I will be really thinking about how we can remember in everything we do that it emanates from thinking about art.” Portrait made in the Rodin Gallery at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, in Raleigh, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

3. Americans have some misconceptions about the rest of the world.

Prior to coming to Raleigh, Hillings spent nearly a decade in the United Arab Emirates working on establishing the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which is still years from opening.

“The Arab world is not a monolithic place,” Hillings said. “Based on experience, I can say that many of the images about how women are treated or their roles are actually completely wrong. Many of the leaders in the United Arab Emirates are women, including their minister of culture. The bulk of the Emiratis I worked with were young women aspiring to become cultural leaders and run future museums.”

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4. Artistry and popular appeal is still a balancing act.

An ongoing challenge for everyone in the museum business is how to appeal to the masses while upholding museums’ traditional artistic mission.

“My interest in pop culture and deep academic background don’t need to conflict,” she said. “I chose to work in museums because I really do believe in making art accessible to the public. Everybody lives in such a visual universe with our smartphones, thinking about what we’re looking at. If museums can translate that and add layers of knowledge, we can think about what it’s really telling us.”

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5. Future plans are still taking shape.

One of Hillings’ first projects is to oversee an evaluation of the museum’s permanent collection, with an eye to figuring out future acquisitions. But that process should also reveal different ways to present what the museum already has.

“I believe in the importance of the museum collection and how to present it. You might find us putting artworks from different time periods and places together to ask questions about bigger ideas. A museum is not just a place, it’s a series of ideas and visual material that helps you think about those ideas. So part of our process is to ask how we can reach as many people as possible.”

David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.