The North Carolina Museum of Art has named a new director, and she’ll be the first woman to lead the state’s art museum since it was established.
The museum announced Monday that Duke University alumnus Valerie Hillings will replace longtime director Larry Wheeler, 75, who announced his retirement in November. He has helmed the museum since 1994.
Hillings, 47, lives in New York, where she has worked for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation since 2004. She serves as the curator and associate director of curatorial affairs for the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a contemporary-art museum that’s being established in the United Arab Emirates.
“Having a woman director was probably overdue,” Wheeler said. “But regardless of gender, qualifications drive the ship and she has excellent credentials. We think she’s very worthy.”
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Hillings has curated more than 15 exhibitions on four continents and been widely published. She has also served on art-prize juries and was a fellow at the Central for Curatorial Leadership in New York in 2016, according to the NC Museum of Art.
In an interview, Hillings said she is excited about the challenge.
“Between what Larry has already done here and what I’ve done in my career, I think the museum has the tools to connect with important people in the art world,” Hillings said. “I’ll have to build my own ties with the community, obviously. But I’ve got on my running shoes and I’m ready to step ahead quickly.”
Hillings grew up in Alexandria, Va., and has a number of ties to the Triangle, including a three-year stint on the Board of Advisors for Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art from 2014 to 2017. Duke is also where Hillings met her husband, who works in medical-device marketing. They both remain avid fans of Duke basketball.
“I graduated in 1993, Bobby Hurley’s class,” she said, referencing the Duke basketball player. “I know with the Carolina situation, all the ‘Dukeness’ might be awful for some people. But there’s a lot.”
After Duke, Hillings earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in art history from New York’s University’s Institute of Fine Arts before landing at the Guggenheim 14 years ago.
“Her international work with the Guggenheim will bring great benefits to the NCMA and help further develop their contemporary program,” said Kim Rorschach, director/CEO of the Seattle Art Museum and founding director of Duke’s Nasher. “The museum has a solid national reputation, and I think Valerie is a great appointment who will put them even more on the map.”
In her new position, Hillings’ salary will be $301,704, mostly funded by receipts from the NCMA Foundation with $118,419 from the state. Wheeler earned $301,704 in his final year.
Hillings comes to the NCMA at a time of transition for the entire museum industry, when it’s grappling with how to appeal to audiences while trying to fulfill the traditional mission of museums.
“Balancing art versus entertainment is a challenge, and you often don’t know which show is going to grab people,” Hillings said. “I believe museums need to tell the story of history, but also tear it apart — question everything, open new stories. Some audiences have those old-school expectations and some just want the perfect selfie. I’ve been in exhibition meetings with the question, ‘What’s the selfie moment?’ Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.”
Her appointment comes after an eight-month search.
“She will bring fresh ideas about expanding the cultural impact of the arts in North Carolina and beyond,” said Ann Goodnight in a statement. Goodnight, a member of the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation Board of Directors, chaired the search committee.
Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim, said in a statement that Hillings has “contributed significantly to the development of a transnational and forward-looking collection” for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
The Hillings announcement caps a process that’s been years in the making. Even before announcing his retirement, Wheeler was working on tying up loose ends with a strategic plan that included the museum’s outdoor park.
This year has seen successful shows, including the “You Are Here” multi-media extravaganza. With 102,000 visitors this summer, the museum said it was the largest attendance for a contemporary exhibit ever, according to a news release. This spring, Wheeler also oversaw the acquisition of “Light of Life” by the noted conceptual artist Yayoi Kusama, which was debuted during “You Are Here” and is now part of the NCMA’s permanent collection.
“The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art,” the next anticipated exhibit, is set to open Oct. 13.
Other highlights from Wheeler’s tenure as director include the 2009 acquisition of 29 Auguste Rodin sculptures, which made the NCMA the largest Rodin depository in the Southern United States; construction of the sleek new West Building in 2010; “Rembrandt in America,” a 2011 exhibit featuring the largest group of authentic Rembrandt paintings ever assembled in the U.S.; and the establishment of the museum amphitheater as a significant concert venue in the Triangle.
The 164-acre Museum Park, which expanded two years ago, has served as an extension for the museum’s collections.
Wheeler’s final day will be Nov. 1, coinciding with Hillings’ first.
“After Nov. 1, it’s her museum,” Wheeler said. “I believe in creative choreography, so I wanted the final act of this opera to be a strong aria. I feel like I’m leaving in the best possible spirit, hitting the high notes. The museum has great affection from the community and I feel the love. What could be a greater reward than that?”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Larry Wheeler’s salary was incorrect. His salary is $301,704.