Summer Intern Spotlight: Finding Meaning at the Phillips Collection

GW graduate student Bryan Hilley learns about the life of a curator.

June 24, 2014

Bryan Hilley

Bryan Hilley, a George Washington University art history graduate student and Phillips Collection intern, said he was drawn to GW's art-focused educational initiatives and experiential learning opportunities.

By Brittney Dunkins

For Bryan Hilley, an art history graduate student at the George Washington University, art is similar to a puzzle, not one you put together—one you take apart.

“I was talking to another graduate student, and he said, ‘As a fine artist you try to take all of these parts of yourself and present it in art, but as an art historian you take out all of the pieces that make up an artwork and try to discover what the artist is trying to say,’” Mr. Hilley said. “That is what I love about art.”

A passion for deconstructing and understanding art has taken Mr. Hilley from the classrooms of GW to the gallery rooms of the Phillips Collection, where he has served as an intern since May.

Though generally soft-spoken, Mr. Hilley’s eyes lit up when he talked about working with Phillips Collection Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović—an experience that he said has been an eye-opening look at the role of a museum curator.

“I’ve worked in a few different museum departments, including setting up installations and volunteering at visitors’ services and the front desk,” Mr. Hilley said. “But with this internship, I’m actually seeing how the art comes in, how a show is arranged and the work that a curator does,” he said.

Mr. Hilley began his undergraduate career as a fine artist, studying printmaking at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., just 15 miles away from his hometown. However, he found himself drawn to art research and history toward the end of his undergraduate years.

“For the longest time, I tried making art and wanted to make a career out of it,” Mr. Hilley said. “But then I noticed that whenever my professors gave me artists to look at, I would spend more time in the library researching than actually making art in the studio.”

“I started to think I should switch from creating art to trying to create meaning from art,” he said.

A post-undergraduate internship at the Georgia Museum of Art and growing intellectual curiosity—fueled by recreational reading of art criticism, attending gallery shows of emerging artists and auditing classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—led Mr. Hilley to GW in 2013.

“I knew that GW had a great relationship with the Smithsonian and the Phillips Collection, and I was interested in working in a museum,” he said.

GW forged a partnership with the Phillips Collection in 2010 to offer modern art courses and opportunities for experiential learning to students.  That same year, GW President Steven Knapp signed a memorandum of understanding to expand a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and offer internship, fellowship and academic opportunities at the world’s largest museum and research complex.

The university has gone on to enhance its arts education, building the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum on the Foggy Bottom Campus and entering into a partnership with the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art + Design.

Since beginning his studies at Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Mr. Hilley has participated in two internships, first at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and, most recently, at the Phillips Collection.

“What I like about art is that it is multidisciplinary— each time you learn something new, you understand the work in a different way.” - Bryan Hilley, CCAS graduate student and Phillips Collection intern.

Faced with the prospect of an unpaid internship at the Phillips Collection, Mr. Hilley applied for an award through the Career Services Council’s Knowledge in Action Career Internship Fund, a program that has provided nearly $150,000 in funding to 90 students with “necessarily unpaid” internships through the generosity of parents, alumni and members of the Board of Trustees.

He said that the most rewarding part of working at the Hirshhorn was helping visitors discover their own interpretation of the works on display. He and a team of five interns would spend hours in the gallery, talking through some of the more complicated works with patrons.

“We were trained on how to approach and talk to a range of people because there were tourists who were coming to the museum for the first time who didn’t know anything about the show and there were also curators from other museums coming in,” Mr. Hilley said. “The end goal was to get people to slow down, think about the art and explain what they think without feeling judged.”

“Helping people understand that there is no right or wrong answer was really enjoyable,” he said. “You have all of these people from different disciplines using their experiences to form their own take on a piece.”

Mr. Hilley said that understanding patrons is integral to the curatorial process, as the most difficult part of creating a show is expressing meaning through presentation.

“I always come from the perspective of, ‘If I was a patron of the museum, how would I want to interact with the piece and have it set up?’” Mr. Hilley said. “Vesela likes outside input, and I am learning that it takes all of the departments working together, not just the curator, to bring in a crowd.”

Mr. Hilley also hopes to earn an internship position with a museum’s registrar office, which manages the art as it comes in and is loaned out.

“I’ve talked to a few curators and when the show is over they go back to their office; they don’t get to spend as much time on the floor,” Mr. Hilley said. “The registrar is the fun side, because you get to handle the art and sometimes ride along when it is loaned out.”

Mr. Hilley is fairly sure he wants to work in a museum after he graduates, preferably close enough to the art to interact with it.

“What I like about art is that it is multidisciplinary,” he said. “You have to know about the history, the politics at the time it was made, the artist’s background and the materials that were used—and each time you learn something new, you understand the work in a different way.”

The Summer Intern Spotlight will run on George Washington Today over the course of several weeks to highlight the internship experiences of GW students as they pursue their academic passions through experiential learning.