Q&A with Kristen Hileman, New Contemporary Curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art

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BMA Names Kristen Hileman as New Contemporary Curator

Cara: First of all, Congratulations on your new position as contemporary curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art! There are a lot of excited people here in Baltimore who are thrilled you are coming on board. After your 8 year tenure at the Hirshhorn, what made you want to switch from DC to Baltimore?

Kristen: Thank you. I am excited about the new position and the new city. I have worked at the Hirshhorn for eight years, and it is an amazing institution with a great collection, fantastic staff, and lively and dedicated supporters. I am glad that I will still be able to pop down to Washington to see exhibitions and attend lectures there.

However, I felt the need to diversify my experience by being part of a different kind of museum. It will be stimulating to engage with a collection and gallery architecture that is new to me and inspiring to develop a contemporary program within the context of a museum that has outstanding holdings from different times and places. I also look forward to interacting with different audiences and expanding my relationships with the community of artists, collectors, and patrons who live in and around Baltimore.

Cara: At the Hirshhorn you worked with a number of big name artists on some very ambitious projects. What were and are some of your favorite exhibits and artists you have worked with?

Anne Truitt

Kristen: On October 7, my exhibition Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection opens. This is a retrospective look at a pioneering American abstract artist known for the sculpture she made from the early 1960s until her death in 2004. Then in April 2010, my final project for the Hirshhorn will go on view. It’s a Directions show of two artists—Mario Garcia Torres and Cyprien Gaillard—who are at relatively early stages in international careers and who, broadly speaking, foreground ideas over objects. I mention these examples to demonstrate that contemporary art encompasses a wide range of practices and outputs. Consequently, I find it impossible to select favorite artists and exhibitions, but extremely necessary to feel committed and passionate about all of the projects I undertake. I also dearly love the anticipation of whatever thing is coming next!

Mario Garcia Torres
Cyprien Gaillard

That being said, I have particularly enjoyed the projects in which I had the opportunity to work closely with the artists involved. These would include Cai Guo-Qiang’s and Oliver Herring’s Directions shows, John Baldessari’s permanent collection installation, and the Hirshhorn venue of Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition. All of these artists are exceptionally talented and intelligent people. It was a privilege to get to know and learn from them over the months of preparation leading to their shows.

Oliver Herring ‘Task’ at the Hirshhorn

In addition to his gallery exhibition, Oliver Herring organized an outdoor performance at the Hirshhorn called “Task,” which brought together sixty people from the greater DC area in an eight-hour interactive experience. It was quite meaningful to realize “Task” because through it, I was able to observe a contemporary art event touching people’s lives in a concrete way. A project is most rewarding when it connects you to both artists and audiences.

Cara: If you could have lunch and cocktails with any artist, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Kristen: For me, there is no hesitating about this answer. I would love to have lunch with Anne Truitt, who died in late 2004. It wasn’t until 2005/2006 that I had the go ahead for the retrospective. I have now spent nearly four years looking at her work, interviewing those who knew her, and reading both published and unpublished documents about her life and career. Yet I never was able to speak with her about the show and its catalogue.

Anne Truitt

It is a classic example of the researcher’s predicament that was so brilliantly examined in Citizen Kane: one can learn an awful lot about someone, but still and always know so little. (Actually that is a dilemma that extends to human relationships in general, don’t you think?) I have many questions to ask Truitt, and I would also simply like to tell her how much I admire her work and what it has meant to spend time with it.

Anne Truitt

Cara: What are you looking forward to most about your new job? What exhibits and ideas are brewing?

Kristen: I would say that I am most looking forward to building new relationships through the contemporary program at the BMA and that includes relationships between museum-goers and art objects/projects, as well as relationships between living artists and the BMA as an institution.

Kristen Hileman

There are many ideas brewing but there are also many conversations to be had with the various stake-holders in the BMA (the museum’s staff and supporters, artists living in and around Baltimore, and, if possible, audience members) before the time is right to narrow those ideas down. In general, I feel that the contemporary program needs to strike the right balance between time-intensive scholarship and a nimble responsiveness to emerging ideas and trends. Further, I am committed to showcasing the work of artists at different points in their careers, and drawing those artists from the local, national and international “arenas.” I would love to officially inaugurate a media space in the galleries, so that the Front Room shows will be complemented by an on-going and dynamic film, video and digital media series. And, I think it is important to develop some projects that tie the contemporary to other aspects of the BMA’s collection.

Dan Steinhilber “Front Room” at the BMA

Cara: I have to honestly say that the BMA’s contemporary curators in the past have taken a rather standoffish approach to the contemporary art scene here in Baltimore, one that the BMA’s Director, Doreen Bolger, seems to be single-handedly redeeming. What do you see as your responsibility to the thriving contemporary art community here in Baltimore? How could a bond between the museum and local artists be strengthened?

Kristen: I can’t let the “standoffish” observation go without some sort of response. I am in no position to comment on how my predecessors interacted with the artist community in Baltimore. But their admirable achievements in terms of exhibitions and acquisitions are a significant part of what drew me to the BMA, first as a visitor and then as a candidate for the curatorial position. And those exhibitions have included some important looks at artists living in this region. I still vividly remember the Joyce Scott show that was on view at the BMA about ten years ago, and more recently Washington artist Dan Steinhilber was featured in a dynamic Front Room project. And there have been others—such as exhibitions of the works of Richard Cleaver and Piper Shepard, as well as the Sondheim Prize Finalists shows over the past three years. Further, it is worth keeping in mind that professional distance is a valid way of navigating the inherently awkward reality lurking behind the curator-artist relationship: every curator has to say “no” to more artists than he or she can say “yes” to.

Richard Cleaver

Of course, an equally important part of what brought me to Baltimore is the art community in and around the city, and the fact that the BMA has a director who is dedicated to engaging and supporting area artists. I also want to be an active part of that community and make sure the bond between it and the museum is strong and healthy.

I have been making visits to Baltimore artists’ studios since 1995 and have great respect for the work being done here. I am happy about being able to increase the number of studio visits that I can make and also about following more closely what is happening in the area’s academic, non-profit, and commercial venues. Certainly those visits will feed into the BMA’s contemporary program—it’s exhibitions, acquisitions, events, and outreach. I imagine, though, that we are all in agreement that the emphasis must be on excellence and not geography. To return to the Truitt example, it has been critical during the planning and implementation of the Anne Truitt show to emphasize that the rationale behind the exhibition is the power of her art and not that she made it while living in Washington, DC.

On another front, I plan to position myself as an advocate for artists in this area in terms of communicating about their work to those who live elsewhere. I will look forward to telling my colleagues in other cities about the talent here, and, of course, recommending Baltimore artists for grants, awards, and residencies when I have the opportunity.

Dawn Gavin’s work in the Sondheim Prize at the BMA, 2007

I also hope that Baltimore-based artists will be interested in strengthening their ties to the museum, not only by accepting invitations to teach, speak or show, but also by attending and building dialogue around the institution’s exhibitions and programs. I hope that we have in common the aspiration that contemporary art is a relevant and “living” part of this city and region.

Kristen talks with Kate Hardy and Kyan Bishop about their work.

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