Bayou Profile | Ben Hickey
article by Starla Gatson
photography by Kelly Moore Clark
Benjamin Hickey never knows what his workdays will bring, but he doesn’t mind. The unpredictability keeps things fun and engaging, and thinking outside the box to get the job done satisfies his urges to create. As the curator of collections at the Hilliard Art Museum, Hickey plays a significant role in bringing art exhibitions to life. His goal is always the same: to fill an empty room. However, how he goes about doing that changes every time.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” the Buffalo, New York native explains. “Every artist’s a little different, and the artwork’s always a little different. So, the lighting or the height at which you hang something might need to change. Everything’s always different, and you kind of have to make something out of nothing.”
Of course, “making something out of nothing” involves more than simply hanging art on the wall and flipping a few light switches. Many steps are involved, and Hickey is passionate about them all, from the more mundane tasks like shipping and insuring the art to more exciting aspects like planning an opening reception and artist talk.
Hickey thoroughly enjoys what he does, but being a curator wasn’t initially the goal. He says he didn’t necessarily have any conscious career aspirations after finishing his undergraduate degree. After earning a history degree from Canisius College, a private Jesuit institution in Buffalo, Hickey took two years to find himself, during which time he applied to intern at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
“I emailed [the application] to the wrong place,” Hickey remembers, “and, you know, things just sit in inboxes and aren’t addressed because they aren’t important.”
A lack of a response didn’t stop him, though. The then-call center employee went to the museum on his day off to inquire about his application.
“I think they misunderstood me,” he tells BayouLife, “and they said, ‘Well, can you start today?’ It wasn’t the internship I wanted. I wanted a curatorial internship, and instead, I got one centered on exhibition prep and handling and hanging the art.”
Despite it not being exactly what he applied for, Hickey accepted the job. Within 10 minutes, he was uncrating a Picasso in one of the museum’s main vaults with the other preparators.
“It was just magical,” he recalls. “Intoxicating.”
No, Hickey’s internship at the Albright-Knox wasn’t the one he wanted, but it seemed to be the one he needed; it would be the catalyst for his curatorial career. There, at the museum he often frequented as a kid, Hickey discovered he wanted to work with art, and being a curator was how he would do it.
After interning at the museum for two years, Hickey moved across the country to the Golden State to pursue a Master’s degree in art history from the University of California, Riverside. But soon after graduating, he returned to New York. He says, “In 2008, a couple of months before I graduated, the housing bubble burst. So, I ended up back in Buffalo working for their arts council, working at the Albright-Knox again in the same position but full-time, and teaching adjunct art history courses at Canisius.”
It was around this time that Hickey learned of the Masur Museum of Art. Under the direction of Evie Stewart, the museum was on the hunt for a curator. And as it turned out, Hickey was just the person for the job. His experience at the Albright-Knox and graduate studies meant he was someone with many art-related skills; that’s what the Masur was looking for.
“I have a background in the blue-collar aspect of museums, and early in my career, that was kind of prohibited; it gave people the wrong idea about my interests and skills,” Hickey says. “It has ended up being a huge asset for me. I had a Master’s degree in art history, but I’d been fabricating pedestals, and I know about facilities management.” He trails off before adding, “The industry didn’t know what to do with me. In the Masur, I saw a position that needed someone who could do a little bit of everything at as high a level as I could provide.”
Hickey served as curator of collections and exhibitions at the Masur Museum for around seven years. During this, his first full-time curatorial position, he helped put together many noteworthy exhibitions, including Shared Earth: The Ancient Mounds Project. The exhibition, shown from October 2014 to February 2015, featured photographer Jenny Ellerbe’s images of northeast Louisiana’s ancient mounds in the Poverty Point State Historic Site.
Shared Earth and the other exhibitions Hickey helped bring to life were labor-intensive endeavors. But Hickey says the work was worth it, adding, “Dealing with themes specific to Northeast Louisiana that we knew the community would feel invested in was always wonderful.”
Hickey declares that he owes a lot to the Masur, Evie Stewart and the museum board members, and the Twin City Art Foundation, revealing that he “came of age in many senses” in Ouachita parish. While in the region, he also co-founded the Outside Gallery in downtown Monroe with Vitus Shell and was even an adjunct professor at Louisiana Tech University’s School of Design for a short while.
Things were going well for Hickey in Monroe, but eventually, he felt he was ready for new challenges. Those would come through the Paul and Lulu Hilliard Museum of Art, located on the University of Louisiana Lafayette campus and established in 1964.
Hickey accepted the curator of collections position there in 2018 and leads, works with, and learns from a small team. He admits that, with more hands on deck, he has less control now than he did at the Masur — “Different people on our team here do different elements of the project,” he explains — but less control certainly doesn’t equal less interest.
Though not responsible for every part of the exhibition planning process, he is aware and appreciative of everything that goes into assembling an art show. He works just as hard to create engaging exhibitions for the public as he did before. He likens his role to that of a movie producer, serving as an intermediary between many parties, as he walks through the process of putting together an exhibition.
“I start with thinking about the overall schedule,” he says. “I want there to be a good mix of artists in terms of message, race, and gender. I want to provide a variety of experiences for people over the course of one visit or over the course of the year if they keep coming. It’s up to working with the director and the board, understanding what the community might find interesting, then working with the artist to see what they as a creative person want.”
The last part of his sentence, working with the artist, is a crucial step, Hickey says. After all, they create the work Hickey will display.
“It’s important to include the artists in the planning process; they’ve got a critical voice for the project,” he explains. “[You have to] understand when their ideas are working and when they’re not and they need some guidance, but do so with a light touch.”
From start to finish, the exhibition planning process takes about two years. At any given time, four shows are open at the Hilliard, which means Hickey is simultaneously working on each of them and getting the ball rolling on the next four. It’s a lot of work, he admits, but it’s worth it. “I try not to take it seriously and realize that I have a fun, really engaging job,” he says.
When not at the Hilliard, Hickey works on his private drawing practice — “It’s like an exhaust pipe for my creativity,” he says — or spends time in his perennial garden or with his family. These things refresh him and keep him excited about doing the work.
And speaking of doing the work, when asked what advice he would give aspiring art professionals, that’s what Hickey responded: do the work.
“You’re not an artist unless you’re making art,” he says. “[There are people] who have ideas [and say], ‘Oh, but I don’t want to’ or ‘I don’t have time.’ Unless you find the time to do it, you’re not an artist. At first, my advice sounds really harsh. But it’s not meant to be. It’s more like, ‘Hey, go do it, who cares?’ Just make the work; do the thing you want to do and figureit out as you go. You can find a way to market this and be successful as you find your voice.”