Past topics have ranged from medicine to education, but this spring the Duke Colloquium is focusing on the arts as a career.

“One of the main topics for the Duke Colloquium is bringing high-level professionals in specific fields to Duke to foster intelligent conversation,” Benton Wise, one of this year’s student directors, said.

This year, the Duke Colloquium will bring Duke alum Valerie Hillings, associate curator and manager of curatorial affairs for the Abu Dhabi Project of the Guggenheim Foundation, as the keynote speaker on April 16. Hillings studied art history as an undergraduate at Duke and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

Hillings describes her career as somewhat accidental. She came to Duke intending to study public policy to become a lawyer and signed up to take a course in legal writing. Somehow, the computer knocked her out of the class, and she took an art history course with Kristine Stiles instead. Of Stiles, Hillings said, “She really inspired me to continue in art history.” After taking her course, Hillings later became Stiles’s research assistant.

Her interest in international studies and public policy spurred her to conceive of art as a global career.

“My career hasn't been just about objects and artists; it's been about seeing the world, meeting a lot of interesting people, and trying to figure out how culture can carry other ideas and experiences,” Stiles said.

Hillings recalls being uncertain about which path she wanted to pursue.

“My experience at Duke made me think I wanted to be a curator, but then I taught at New York University, and I was torn,” Hillings said.

She relates that experience to those of her students today who are driven toward the arts but unsure how to navigate the field.

“There are so many careers in the arts that are not just art or art history. The quick assumption in the arts is that you're going to be a curator, an artist or a professor. But there are many other things you can do, even if it's just making art a part of your life,” Hillings said.

Wise hopes that the Colloquium will “tap into that relevance for Duke students” and help students “engage and connect with the professional elements of an arts career.”

In addition to Hillings’s keynote address on April 16, the Colloquium will include an event at the Nasher Museum of Art and a panel of four student directors on April 17. Wise said the students will speak about “how we can navigate and integrate art in our lives, and possibly pursue art as a career.”

The Duke Colloquium is an opportunity for students to engage with ideas that are relevant to them, either professionally or in their everyday lives.

“Students who attend will be rewarded with highly reflective, intellectual conversation that can be carried back into their Duke lives. It’s a conversation that doesn’t end,” Wise said.

In her experiences with students and in her own life, Hillings noted that Duke is an institution with multidisciplinary interests. She is interested in the unbounded nature of the arts and how it intersects many areas of people’s lives.

“The arts forced me into areas I wasn't so comfortable with, areas I didn't understand. I think it's that willingness to follow that simple phrase that I was taught early on in my years at Duke. To ‘always stay hungry’ and to always want to know something new and fresh, always want to question things, even to embrace the things that you don't like or understand,” said Hillings.

The Duke Colloquium presents Series VI: Art as a Career with Valerie Hillings, Ph.D. on April 16 and 17. Specific event information is available at