When her phone rang last fall, France Family Professor of art, art history, and visual studies Kristine Stiles recognized the voice on the other end of the line. “Do you know who you’re talking to?” the voice asked.

“Of course,” she said. “Valerie.” Valerie Hillings ’93: student, research assistant, protégé, then friend and ultimately colleague, curator at the Guggenheim. A voice Stiles would never mistake.

“You’re talking to the new director of the North Carolina Museum of Art!” Hillings told Stiles.

“We just screamed,” Stiles says, and a lifelong friendship entered its next stage with a return to its original status: both members in the same area code. They still struggle to find time to get together—“She’ll tell you, ‘And I haven’t seen her since she got here!’ because the job is so big,” says Hillings, laughing. And it is big. The NCMA has two buildings, an amphitheater, a 164-acre park, a staff of some 200, and an annual operating budget of $22 million.

So the return to the Triangle is less a homecoming for Hillings than a new adventure. Her first position as the director of a museum. The first female director of the NCMA. And the director of a museum looking toward its next steps after decades of explosive growth, including the opening of a new building in 2010. Since arriving in late 2018, Hillings has been doing more than merely getting her legs beneath her. She’s also begun developing plans for rethinking the museum’s physical and metaphorical connection to its visitors and its vast campus. She’s at work on reorganizing the way the entire collection is hung. She’s figuring out how to answer to two separate boards and one unpredictable state government.

And on top of that she’s been touring the entire state, visiting museums, schools, studios, and arts and community organizations. She’s spent the last decade and a half working for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, ultimately as curator for the museum’s Abu Dhabi project, which will create in the United Arab Emirates capital a new museum displaying not just the Guggenheim collection but artwork connected with its Middle Eastern site. Thus for decades she’s been traveling the world, touring and organizing art shows in places like Russia and Spain, Germany and Australia. Now she’s focused on learning from places like Kinston and Roaring Gap.

Which sounds great to her. How else would she have found her way to Elsewhere, the bizarre and miraculous museum and artist residency in Greensboro? A “living museum,” Elsewhere is a one-time thrift shop and boarding house ultimately turned into a holistic art installation, and in June one of its directors led Hillings and a few others around its cluttered rooms and chaotic hallways, filled with art created from decades’ worth of whatever was lying around. Artists visit and stay for a period, using the three stories’ worth of accumulated stuff—books, bolts of fabric, crockery, clothes—the “hoardiculture” built up over decades of the original owner’s lifetime—to create art, whether by organization, reuse, manipulation, or demolition. “To Preserve, Destroy,” says one installation, before which Hillings stood, agog, taking pictures, some of which she shared on her Instagram feed.

“Every surface has something happening,” she said. “Look here”—she pointed to a shelf of kitchenware—“ that looks like nothing’s happening that’s deliberate, but it turns out to be very intentional.” Elsewhere treats art the way Hillings does. To Hillings, that is, art is happening everywhere, and by everyone. “Arts happen all over the world,” she said. “And just because it’s not in Artforum magazine doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” Traveling the state does more than just introduce her to her fellow directors and curators. She says she’s collecting data to create frameworks for bringing into the museum community the people who come to these museums, who participate in their communities. “Some of these people may be our curators in the future.”

Hillings didn’t initially see curating in her own future. Like many Duke students, she started her first year looking into courses on politics, with an eye toward law school. But when a computer glitch left her with a last-minute hole in her second-term schedule, she signed on for a class on art from the Renaissance to the present, partially because as a lecture course, it still had space. “I thought about it a little bit, and I had taken art history in high school,” she recalls, “and I grew up in a family where we went to museums.” It sounded like fun. It was taught by second-year professor Kristine Stiles.

The first course interested her enough to lead to a second, and for that course Stiles assigned a visit to any of several exhibits, one in Washington, D.C., near Hillings’ Alexandria home. When she and her mother went to the exhibit, Stiles happened to be there, too. Hillings was shy. Her mother didn’t know Stiles, but that didn’t stop her. She “dragged me over to introduce me to Professor Stiles,” Hillings says. “And that was the beginning of our lifelong relationship.”

Stiles soon saw a sense of purpose in the shy young woman that matched that of her mother. “She’s very clear in her identification of strong people, people that she can depend on,” Stiles says. “She chose me as a mentor, and she’s never wavered.” One class led to another, and the mentor relationship strengthened. Stiles asked her to be her research assistant, so Hillings helped on Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, an art-history text. Hillings continued to move toward art history, though her interests in politics and other topics did not fade. Eventually she recognized that art history was simply history seen through a specific lens, not an interest exclusively in art: “I didn’t have to leave [other interests] behind to be an art historian,” she says. “In fact, I could kind of shape it in a way that might be more interesting.” She was on track for a second major in political science until she replaced policy courses with the language classes she needed for graduate school.

As a senior she curated a show at the old Duke University Museum of Art (predecessor to today’s Nasher Museum). Each year high-level art history upperclassmen were chosen to curate the “Soho at Duke” series, and in her senior year Hillings was chosen. With a partner (and Stiles and then-museum director Michael Mezzatesta), she traveled to New York, where they visited galleries, chose art, and created an exhibition. Stiles still recalls how powerfully she and Mezzatesta “pretty much hated everything they chose for the show.” The elders pushed hard, but Hillings and her partner “told us, ‘This is our generation.’ Valerie was the one who was really forthright about that.”

Making hard choices and being forthright about them is Hillings’ job now, and she’s prepared. Sarah Schroth, director of the Nasher, knows Hillings as a board member and as an expert brought in several years ago to help the Nasher manage its collection of Russian art, and like Stiles, Schroth is taken by Hillings’ cheerful fierceness. “She’s not afraid of anything,” Schroth says. “She’s very brave, and intellectually courageous.” Schroth does suggest that as the director of a large enterprise, Hillings prepare herself for something not particularly artistic: “One thing museum directors don’t understand until they sit in the chair is the amount of time you have to use for staff,” Schroth says. She also noted that, among museum directors, women are historically underrepresented.

As both director and CEO of the museum, Hillings seemingly serves two masters: the NCMA board of trustees, a group appointed largely by the government, and the NCMA Foundation board of directors, which is a private foundation that raises money for the museum (and also chooses some members of the first board). The Foundation raises about 60 percent of the museum’s annual budget. And if all that isn’t complicated enough, the government-appointed board is of course powerfully affected by vagaries in state lawmaking and funding; the museum is itself a part of the state’s Department of Cultural and Natural Resources.

That doesn’t worry Hillings; her Guggenheim project was effectively funded by the government in Abu Dhabi. Having everything from high-level donors to ticket sales in her background gives her confidence. “The more I know, the more I can zoom out and see how it’s all connecting. Being aware is the first step,” she says. And though she went to Duke and says she loves North Carolina—she eventually married Duke classmate B.J. Scheessele ’93, M.B.A. ’98, and his family lives in Charlotte—she understands that she needs to treat North Carolina as a place mostly new to her. “That’s why I’m learning by going out into the state,” she says. “Going to schools and meeting community college leaders, because I need to understand how the museum can be a partner with them. And equally, how we can be a platform,” sharing their artists and educators through the museum.

That collaboration is something she plans to focus on as she begins to make a mark on the museum; another priority is education. But above all, especially at first, she is trying to open herself up to North Carolina and how it responds to art. “What’s been interesting to me, coming here after living in New York for twenty-five years, is how important parks and nature are here,” she says. Not that New Yorkers don’t love Central Park, but Hillings says in day-to-day life a New Yorker won’t think much about it. In North Carolina, whether it’s the new Dix Park being planned in Raleigh, the greenway systems throughout the state, or perhaps the Blue Ridge Parkway Folk Art Center, “here they’re highly valued,” she says. “Admired, important in the social fabric.”

Hillings discusses these topics in front of the enormous windows in her office at the corner of the top floor of the museum’s east building—the old building. She joked once when visiting the private collection in the apartment of Peter Norton in New York—the Norton Antivirus software guy—that the window looking out onto Central Park was the best part of his collection. Now she has a similar view, looking out over the emerald museum park, and doesn’t take it for granted. “We’re here in the middle of nature,” she says; she sees hawks and swallows among the trees and sculptures. She also sees parents and school groups, joggers and bicyclists.

The Museum of Art is in that vast park as the result of a long-ago decision by the legislature to move the museum away from downtown and nearer the highway—and the Polk Youth Detention Center that remained in operation next to it until 1997. “When I first started coming,” she says of her visits to the museum as a Duke student, “it was still a prison here.” The museum ended up with that land, and a new addition to the sculptures and landscape installations opened in 2016. Now her office windows open onto a spectacular expanse of park and nature. “I keep doing this hug thing,” she says, describing how the amphitheater, the park, and the museum building itself create a sort of embrace.

She sees the complexity of those various enterprises as an opportunity to help them embrace the people who come to see them. Past director Larry Wheeler shepherded in the additions to the park and the new building. She sees her job as tying together those new elements—the park, the amphitheater, the new building—into that hug. She imagines doors on the bottom floor enabling visitors to come into and out of the museum, bringing the park experience closer to the museum. And though the new building removed some of the lifeblood from the museum’s original building, she sees the now underused space on the bottom floor of the old building as another way to expand what she sees as the museum’s “education and service mission.” For one thing, she can use space for educational opportunities.

She also envisions what she calls “a collection stewardship floor.” As she works on rehanging the permanent collection, she plans to work less along the standard placeand- time model (here is seventeenth-century European art; next comes eighteenth- century European art) and more thematically. The museum is currently, for example, conserving a newly acquired statue of Saul—and performing that conservation in front of visitors. Taking patrons into the back room, as it were. She imagines that statue eventually being displayed not with other sculptures or with representations of biblical art or sculpture made in nineteenth-century England, but rather with the museum’s collection of portraits.

She talks about her work on the Abu Dhabi project and how that inspired her to think beyond the conventions of exhibition. “Like we would buy a painting from a Sudanese artist, who had painted it in 1964 in New York because he was there on a Rockefeller grant. And then it became really interesting because on the one hand he was looking at Sudanese modernism, the European modernism he learned as a student, and then spray paint that he got from Skunder Boghossian, an Ethiopian painter who was based in Washington.”

With what other works of art would you display that painting? “These are the kinds of things I find incredibly fascinating.” Is that New York art? African art? Modernist art? “Everybody’s touched each other at some point. I think through culture you can show those shared moments and sensibilities.”

As a curator,” she says, “every exhibition is a story. It’s a point of view. It’s not presumed that what you’re telling is a gospel of fact story.” She loves how positive the response has been to that visible conservation and envisions telling more stories. “It’s not just about the cleaning,” she says. “So many stories are accessible for people but unknown.” She envisions at least one gallery making clear that process of curation and encouraging visitors to be aware. This is how the curator organized this work. How else might it be organized?

Her onetime coworker at the Guggenheim, Sasha Kalter-Wasserman, isn’t surprised by this. “She has a remarkable sense of how to engage viewers in the creative act by shedding light on the impetus, process, and artist’s voice,” she says of Hillings. “And she’s always asking us to consider the artworks as curators and as viewers.”

Hillings says she’s not artistic herself, at least not as a painter. “I made one good pen-and-ink drawing when I was nine,” she says, which she brought back to Raleigh as a reminder. “But for me, writing and creating stories through the exhibits has been my artistic talent.”

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