Kristen Hileman Leaves the BMA to Pursue New Projects

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After nine years of service to the Baltimore Museum of Art, Kristen Hileman has resigned from her position as Senior Curator and Head of the Contemporary Department.

“I am looking forward to working on projects as an independent curator based in Baltimore and staying involved in the extremely strong arts and academic communities here,” says Kristen Hileman, after announcing her resignation from the BMA and transition to independent curator via social media on February 19, 2019.

In a February 6 email to the BMA’s Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art Group, new Chief Curator Asma Naeem wrote, “We thank Kristen for her almost decade of service to the BMA and wish her the very best in all her future endeavors. During her time at the BMA, Hileman contributed substantially to the museum’s exhibition program and deepened their renowned collection of postwar art.”

The email stated that Hileman’s last day at the institution would be February 15, 2019, and listed some of her most significant acquisitions, of which there are over 400, including “works by Nick Cave, Paul Chan, Richard Cleaver, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Guerrilla Girls, Joan Jonas, Isaac Julien, Sarah Oppenheimer, R.H. Quaytman, Susan Philipsz, Joyce J. Scott, Yinka Shonibare, Jo Smail, Sarah Sze, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, Wolfgang Tillmans, Nari Ward, and Haegue Yang. She was also instrumental in securing important gifts from the collections of Brenda Edelson, Tom and Nancy O’Neil, and Mary and Paul Roberts.”

Within the context of recent BMA headlines championing diversity, it’s worth noting that the list of acquisitions credited to Hileman includes a significant number of women and artists of color, and that most were acquired prior to the BMA’s provocative announcement that it would deaccession redundant works in the collection by white male artists in order to diversify their contemporary collection.

Ava Hassinger, Maren Hassinger, and Curator Kristen Hileman in front of
“Embrace/ Love,” 2008/2018 at the BMA

Like the exhibitions she curated and organized at the BMA, Hileman’s list of acquisitions is indicative of the methodical research and commitment to diversity that has been consistent throughout her career. Although Hileman’s actions were not often broadcast in provocative press releases designed to be repeated by press outlets, her vision has been at the center of much of the museum’s most progressive initiatives, including the recent deaccessioning and subsequent purchasing of contemporary works by women, artists of color, and LGBTQ+ artists.

I wrote for Hyperallergic about the BMA’s announcement of their deaccessioning project in May 2018 and Hileman’s role in developing a more progressive and equitable role for the museum in the future. “My colleagues (past and present) and I continually think about the relationship between the contemporary and historical parts of the museum’s collection and exhibitions, and how they relate to the city of Baltimore,” she said at the time.

When I asked her about the contemporary works she has acquired for the museum, she insisted that acquisitions also hold a special place in her heart, but she has no favorites. However, she admits that, “Nine years ago my goal was to acquire Isaac Julien’s monumental video installation ‘Baltimore,’ and I was finally able to buy that landmark piece for the museum last spring.” She said that this was a “mission accomplished” high point in her career.

Hileman was also behind the first ever museum commission of a site-specific installation by Sarah Oppenheimer and says, “I am extremely proud of the piece I commissioned from the brilliant Sarah Oppenheimer. Her site-specific sculpture in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing is a profound engagement with spatial and human relationships. My fingers are crossed that it will be back on view soon.” (It is currently obscured by the Mark Bradford exhibition which walled off much of the museum’s Contemporary Wing.)

Kristen Hileman with site-specific work by Sarah Oppenheimer

“I have loved working on ambitious commissions like Sarah’s and Tomás Saraceno’s gorgeous lobby installation,” Hileman says. “But I also feel fortunate to have done more ‘portable’ shows, including a retrospective, now on view at the Wexner Center in Columbus, of the unbelievable creative force that is John Waters. Over the last year and a half, others of my BMA projects have traveled to Liverpool (Mary Reid Kelley and Pat Kelley: We Are Ghosts), Los Angeles (Maren Hassinger: The Spirit of Things), and Fort Worth (Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Counterparts). It has been great to see connections develop between artists, Baltimore, and other cities.”

In discussing the various exhibitions she planned and realized at the BMA over the past nine years, it became obvious that a number of the museum’s biggest headlines and noteworthy exhibitions can be attributed to Hileman, including Meleko Mokgosi, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Maren Hassinger, Tomás Saraceno, and John Waters, just to name a few. Although the museum has garnered national press for many of these projects and initiatives under new leadership, the truth is that many of these ground-breaking exhibits were in the planning stages for many years and all were projects that would not have happened without Hileman’s vision and foresight.

Before she accepted the position at the BMA and moved to Baltimore, Hileman lived and worked in DC as an associate curator for the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden for eight years, where she oversaw two curated permanent installations: Ways of Seeing: John Baldessari Explores the Collection and Strange Bodies: Figurative Works, as well as several exhibits for Directions, a series of smaller, exploratory solo-artist shows typically organized for unique spaces in and around the museum including the works of Cai Guo-Qiang, Jim Hodges, and Oliver Herring.

After she made the transition from the Hirshhorn to the BMA, one last major project realized in DC was Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection, the first major exhibition of Truitt’s work since 1974, an exhibition survey of a 50-year career which Hileman organized and for which she also wrote the catalogue.

Ann Truitt: Perception and Reflection at The Hirshhorn

At this point, Hileman says she is dedicated to living and working in the region, having lived in the Baltimore-Washington area since the early 1990s, with the last nine years spent living in Baltimore City and the county.

“When I took the job as the head of the BMA’s contemporary department, it was critical to move from Washington, to understand this city from the inside out, and to make a long-term commitment to Baltimore, as well as to the museum,” says Hileman. “The pay-off has been tremendous personally. I fell in love with my husband as well as the city, and in fact I’m now the mother of a fourth generation Baltimorean whose roots go back to Highlandtown and Federal Hill.”

Hileman says she feels embedded in and inspired by the region and her friends here. “My admiration for the artists and teachers who make their careers in Baltimore increases with each day, as does my gratitude to the generous and passionate philanthropic community that supports the city’s vitally important non-profits,” she says. “There are so many amazing people from different walks of life who demonstrate long-term, civic-minded dedication. They work very hard (and frequently under the radar) to improve Baltimore, grow a sense of community, and think through issues that are deeply relevant throughout the country.”

Although Hileman also tends to work diligently and under the radar, the letter from Naeem to the FOMACA group included a much longer list of accomplishments than I had recalled, including so many significant exhibitions and projects of note at the BMA that it seems hardly possible that one individual could be credited for making them all happen. Hileman is quick to point out that her work at the museum was accomplished collaboratively, with a team of smart and hard-working colleagues, but I would like to emphasize that her contributions to the museum, and to Baltimore’s cultural legacy, are significant and far-reaching.

Even though her presence at the institution has ended, it is reasonable to expect that her prodigious and visionary influence will continue to be realized in Baltimore through independent and collaborative projects and that Baltimore-based contemporary artists of diverse backgrounds will continue to benefit from her presence.

Just to be thorough, I am including Hileman’s exhibition record at the BMA via Naeem and FOMACA:

Exhibitions of note include Andy Warhol: The Last Decade (October 17, 2010 – January 9, 2011), Seeing Now: Photography 1960 – Today (February 20 – May 15, 2011), Candida Höfer: Interior Worlds (November 16, 2011- February 26, 2012), Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley: We Are Ghosts (April 4 – July 15, 2018), Maren Hassinger: The Spirit of Things (July 18 – November 25, 2018), Meleko Mokgosi: Acts of Resistance (May 2 – November 11, 2018), Lizzie Fitch / Ryan Trecartin (October 7, 2018 – January 8, 2019), and most recently her successful John Waters retrospective, currently on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Kristen also organized many Front Room and Black Box exhibitions including Camille Henrot (March 5 – June 15, 2014), Seth Adelsberger (June 29 – November 2, 2014), Anri Sala with Michael Fried (September 14, 2014 – February 22, 2015), Sara VanDerBeek (April 12 – September 20, 2015), Dario Robleto (November 16, 2014 – March 29, 2015), Sharon Hayes (March 15 – October 11, 2015), and Njideka Akunyili Crosby (October 25, 2017 – March 18, 2018). Several of these projects were undertaken with the Center for Advanced Media Studies (CAMS) at Johns Hopkins University as a result of a partnership she and CAMS director Dr. Bernadette Wegenstein initiated.

Special installations of note include Sarah Oppenheimer: Architectural Intervention (November 2012 – ongoing), Oliver Herring: Areas for Action (October 23, 2016 – October 29, 2017), Tomás Saraceno: Entangled Orbits(October 1, 2017 – February 24, 2019), and Spencer Finch: Moon Dust (February 21, 2018 – February 2025). Kristen oversaw the reinstallation of the Contemporary Wing in November 2012. She led efforts to conserve Bruce Nauman’s Violins Violence Silence in 2014, which was made possible through the generous support of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art and additional individual donors.

Portrait of Kristen Hileman by Randall Scott

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