On a Mission: Artists and Institutional Imperatives

Philip Gould (Photographer) and Susie Gottardi (Designer), "Manipulated Photograph of Hilliard Art Museum", 2019, digital media.
Philip Gould (Photographer) and Susie Gottardi (Designer), “Manipulated Photograph of Hilliard Art Museum”, 2019, digital media.



By Ben Hickey



Two years ago, the Hillard Art Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Milestones like this often prompt reflection, and this was very much the case in the curatorial department. We began to review the collection and rethink the overall exhibition program with the goal of developing a more clearly stated institutional identity that would set us apart from other institutions. We needed a concept that would provide us with a clear decision-making logic for the dynamic art history we are recording.



With this in mind, I was tasked with creating a theoretically sound explanation of our mission, and quickly discovered how difficult it was to evaluate the Hilliard’s 50-year corpus of cultural output. How should we create a critical position for our institution? Is there one that embraces our past while making the future more coherent and unified? After seeing the emphasis on professional development for artists within this issue of Number:, I realized that curator/artist interactions formed the basis for our institutional decisions. During the writing process, I recognized this article is a personally revelatory preamble to my ongoing research and writing about canon building within the art historical tradition.



Before I proceed any further, I think it is important to acknowledge there is no immutable, naturally occurring art history. My personal mien, institutional resources, and intellectual influences have put me on my present course. The baseline for my, and ultimately the Hilliard’s, conception of art history is Kenneth Frampton’s seminal essay, Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance. Frampton embraced modernism in architecture, but not its universal qualities or placelessness. I am adapting his thinking and applying it to art history.



In simplest terms, the Hilliard’s art history will be one with a Louisiana and Southern perspective; the perspective of our community. The Hilliard’s projects will address what is most urgent to our audience in an era of culture when linear historical narratives and cohesive artistic movements, while they may be recognizable in one form or another, do not drive critical dialogs surrounding culture. Accordingly, finding similarities amongst disparate art histories and viewpoints will be the Hilliard’s emphasis. It will be what defines us.



The net effect will be an institutional program as diverse and multifaceted as the history of Louisiana. In the future there will be sustained cultural dialogues with Canada (francophone and otherwise), the Caribbean, the United States in general, and the world at large with the goal of the Hilliard’s audience seeing themselves within a variety of intersecting art histories. The intellectual framework for my ideas is an intuitive synthesis of Foucault’s analysis of knowledge and relationships of power, Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic conception of culture, and Glissant’s Poetics of Relation.



When visitors see themselves in our exhibitions, they are more apt to see others as well, especially if those “others” are in the next gallery seeing themselves. An exhibition program with this type of seeing in mind creates empathy (which feels like part of a museum’s civic duty) and builds consensus about what types of culture define our era and locale. Information about what is relevant will be primarily gleaned via institution-sponsored programs and activities. While this is a relatively populist approach to thinking about the canon of art history, the Hilliard will still be defined by professional connoisseurship while following the developing trends in museums of showing a diverse range of artists and improving interactivity with audiences. I feel this is exceedingly important because the concept of looking at art history inter-regionally, in collaboration with audiences, is a fairly unique institutional imperative.



Why is this important for artists to hear? Because institutions use ideas like these to build all kinds of relationships, particularly ones with artists. Artists are selected in terms of how they complement a museum’s overall meta-narrative. It is imperative artists understand this and ask what an institution’s overarching goals are. Perhaps, “how does my work fit into your program?” is a better question than, “how do I exhibit here?” Asking that kind of question could more easily lead to building multifaceted relationships with institutions over the long term. Discussions along these lines are apt to create conditions whereby exhibitions substantively address the content of an artist’s work more thoroughly and perhaps from a slightly new perspective than might otherwise be expected.



Being involved in dialogue with a curator or other arts professional in a manner in which an artist is not asking for something tangible like an exhibition or acquisition will almost certainly be more rewarding than something that feels purely transactional. For example, without conversation many artists often take the metaphorical potential of an exhibition space for granted. They do not consider how the physical arrangement of their work in a space should be used to amplify the meaning of their work rather than being a rote presentation of their practice where little is gained by looking at more than a single work of art. Conversation can lead to insights that might represent a sea change for an artist, and potentially a curator.



Thinking about an institution’s imperatives or mission could be the nudge an artist needs to gain access to higher-level thinking within their practice because they may have to address how they are interconnected to new histories, ideas, or places in addition to what they are trying to achieve individually. In a way, this is what I am doing as a curator as I grapple with altering how my institution articulates itself. As a result, I am increasingly interested in artists who seem to be doing the same.





Benjamin Hickey is the curator of exhibitions at the Hilliard Art Museum in

Lafayette, Louisiana.