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Duke alum Valerie Hillings to take the helm at NC Museum of Art

Valerie Hillings, Trinity ‘93, was recently hired to lead the North Carolina Museum of Art. 

She is leaving her role at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she has worked as a curator for the past 14 years. In addition to her role as curator, Hillings was also a member of the management team tasked with planning a future Guggenheim museum to be located in Abu Dhabi, according to a press release.

"Valerie Hillings brings expertise and vision to her new role as director of the North Carolina Museum of Art," N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said in the release. "I'm confident that her leadership will help take the Museum to the next level for the people of North Carolina and visitors from around the globe." 

The first exhibit Hillings curated was for the Duke University Museum of Art, formerly located in the East Duke Building. She co-curated the exhibit—entitled “SoHo at Duke IV: In Search of Self”—with Lisa Constantino. 

Hillings added that the exhibit was inspired by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel "Generation X," and she was fascinated by the idea of being told what people her age were supposed to be like.

A self-described “pop culture junkie,” Hillings said she was drawn to artists confronting similar questions through pop culture symbols from her own generation. The show included a particular piece called “Sculpture for Teenage Boys,” a pyramid of beer cans wrapped in pop culture labels that the artists bought at truck stops. 

“When you dug into it, it was a piece that was critiquing the macho culture that boys had to confront,” Hillings said. “It just seemed so perfect for a university audience.”

The accompanying piece for girls had umbrellas on a wall and was called “It’s Raining on Prom Night.” The exhibit was successful, attracting an audience of more than 400 students, she said. 

“Never before have so many students expressed enthusiasm about coming to the museum,” Hillings wrote in an article published by The Chronicle in 1993.

Curating the exhibition at Duke was a defining moment in her career path and "set the stage" for what she would become, she said. 

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in art history from Duke, Hillings went on to earn a master's and doctoral degree in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

Then, Hillings accepted a curatorial position at the Guggenheim in New York. For the past decade, she’s been developing Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a museum for modern and contemporary art in the United Arab Emirates.

Hillings has also served on the board of advisers for the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke.

The Triangle has undergone a cultural renaissance since Hillings was a student, with many contemporary artists now living in the area and thriving arts programs developing at local universities. 

“There is a confluence of creativity in the area that I think will feed and nourish what the museum needs to become in the next 10 or 20 years,” Hillings said.

For Hillings and her family, moving back to the Triangle will be a homecoming. Her parents live in Virginia and her husband, another Duke alum, is from Charlotte, N.C.

“I’d been on an amazing track for the last 14 years, but I decided that I didn’t want to be on a plane or in a hotel for the rest of my life,” she said. “I wanted to begin to ground myself.”

The position became available when Larry Wheeler, who had been at the helm of the museum for the past 24 years, announced his retirement.

Hillings will be the first woman to serve as director of the museum, but she’s in good company. 

“If you look at the Ackland [Art Museum in Chapel Hill] and the Nasher, they have [female] directors, so I think I just joined a great community,” she said.

Linda Dougherty, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, said she was eager for the museum to have female leadership. She explained that although museum staffs across the country are predominantly composed of women, they are typically led by male directors. Dougherty also said that Hillings’ experience working in other museums is a strength. 

“I’m grateful to have someone in that position who has a curatorial background, who understand what this culture is like,” Dougherty said.

When Hillings takes over Nov. 1, she plans to work with the staff to show more pieces from the permanent collection, which she thinks of as the lifeblood of a museum. 

“I’m someone who really loves a collecting museum—that idea of stewardship of objects that belong to the people, in this case the people of North Carolina,” she said.


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