The Athens Institute for Contemporary Art (ATHICA) in Athens, Georgia, has named a new artistic director. Artist Hope Hilton, who currently serves as the organization’s gallery manager, plans to officially move into her new post by January 2013. Hilton’s role is already expanding—along with the organization’s board, she curated Center, opening this Friday, September 28.
Hilton’s relationship with ATHICA started years ago, however, after she had just relocated to Athens from her native Atlanta. To hear Hilton tell it, she was pretty much offered the job from the get-go, after an encounter with founder and outgoing director Lizzie Zucker Saltz.
“On my first visit to ATHICA, I introduced myself to Lizzie,” Hilton explains. “On my second visit, she pulled me aside and said, ‘I looked you up! So excited that you’re here. Do you want to take over ATHICA?’” Hilton laughs at the memory. “She actually doesn’t remember it, but I remember because it set my mind into motion—like, what if? I could do that.”
Several years passed and Saltz stepped down, reportedly to encourage a new vision for ATHICA. During that time Hilton had exhibited and performed at the space, and was already somewhat informed on how to navigate an art nonprofit—she’d been culling extensive research for her own education-based art space. Hilton says ATHICA seemed like a nice fit based on her art and how she envisions art working in a community. After joining the board earlier this year and manning marketing and promotions, she was practically primed to move into a principal role. Plus, she’s already won over hearts and minds.
Kathryn Refi, an artist based in Athens said that when she heard the news of Hilton’s new position, she “gave a sigh of relief and thought, ‘Thank god.’” Refi continued, “Hope is a real idea person, has high expectations for herself … and a keen awareness of the international contemporary art world. We are in good hands.”
Hilton’s eye is already cast 10 years down the road. But visitors won’t have to wait that long to notice a shift in energy.
This weekend’s Center is a step in that direction. “It’s relevant to contemporary art in terms of participatory work, work based on community, and relational aesthetics,” she says. “We’ve taken an international conversation and brought it to ATHICA.”
Tapping into international dialogues and focusing on community are, for now, Hilton’s main objectives. “A big goal is to be able to commission new work. That can be really exciting because you give an artist an opportunity to expand on their body of knowledge and create something that’s never been shown. It can be specific to our space, our community—or not. I feel like we’re all spending a lot of time and energy trying to tie in our community to global conversations that are also local.”
It always sounds well intentioned and cerebral when artists start talking about bringing the global into the local dynamic and cultivating community. But Hilton means business and she has the full support of ATHICA’s board.
Of Hilton, board president Katherine McQueen says, “Her inclusive spirit brings artists and art lovers together, educating them about contemporary art and providing a place not only to see great art, but also to congregate and share ideas.” The foundation for such a focus is already in place, and Hilton has no plans to change what’s already working.
“ATHICA has shown a lot of international artists alongside community members,” Hilton says. “Athens can feel insular and that’s one reason I love it. But there’s something beautiful about introducing outsiders to a small community while also showing our small community a level of art, thoughtfulness, and integrity that belongs outside as well. I also believe doing that opens opportunities.”
Much of Hilton’s vision is inspired by Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a Multicentered Society. The late ’90s book, which Hilton was introduced to in graduate school at New York’s Hunter College, discusses a range of topics from mapping and landscape to public art and preservation. The New York Times wrote that Lippard’s view of being multicentered essentially means, “being responsive to and responsible for the place where you are at the time.” No surprise that such a concept ignites a fire for Hilton. Her award-winning work—a delightful range of exhibitions, performances, curated shows, and collaborations—develop from the idea of moving from one locale to the other, staying in motion to spurn on physical and emotional transitions.
Take for instance Walk with Me, a series of silent walks throughout public spaces in various cities, as well as The Recognitions: An Experiment in Social Architecture and a 60-mile Memorial, in which Hilton began to confront her ancestor’s complicity in slavery. That’s how she became turned onto Lippard. “It had a lot to do with owning where you’re from and being a part of where you’re from,” Hilton recalls.
Hilton believes much of her past work has prepared her for becoming artistic director—her undergraduate studies at Atlanta College of Art, co-founding and curating the collective Dos Pestañeos, and transforming her graduate studio into a gallery. “A natural goal of my work was to do more curating. It took me a lot of time and a lot of work to recognize that,” Hilton says.
And that work has led Hilton to a setting where she is not only curating art, but also trying to enrich the cultural conversation in Athens. When she first moved to the city, she expected major influences from the University of Georgia and anticipated a strong music scene. But she got a lot more than that.
“There were a lot of incredible artists working here quietly. ATHICA was driven very much by social, body, and queer politics. That was very important to me because it seemed like a place where conversations could happen that were progressive and relevant and contemporary.”
Down the road, Hilton also hopes to facilitate a regular exchange with artists based in Atlanta and Chattanooga. She looks forward to doing studio visits. She’s inspired by what the “phenomenal” Flux Projects has accomplished under the generous support of investment analyst Louis Corrigan, who provides millions of dollars in matching funds to an array of Atlanta arts organizations. Hilton would like to create artist residencies, more diverse public art, and performances by collaborating with other local groups. More than anything, Hilton is ready to “take ATHICA outside of the gallery.”