Faculty Feature: Kiara Hill—Art History

Dr. Kiara Hill, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History in the Art and Social Practice Program at Portland State, came to the art world in an indirect way. But that, she says, is maybe the point.

Be sure to check out her current exhibit, in conjunction with KSMoCA, at the Littman Gallery in Smith Student Union on the PSU campus through March 17! 

What is curation, though? And how does it fit into ideas of social practice and accessibility? Dr. Hill describes the role of the curator as one of a storyteller, guiding the visitor through an exhibit to help them draw meaning and messages from the artwork. “I think the best way to think about it is [to ask yourself], what story do I want to tell, visually? You look through a permanent collection or group of artworks and [are] trying to decide, okay, what story is being told? How is this art in relationship with each other, but also the individual histories? How can I anticipate someone coming in and viewing the art? So [you have to consider] everything from the order of which artwork should go where, to deciding which artwork should even be included, to deciding like what themes I want to pull out, so that when people read the introductory text, they’ll have an idea of how these things are coming together and playing off of each other.” She laughs and adds, “For lack of better words, think of social media content curating in real time. That will be such an unpopular opinion amongst curators.”

Maybe you’ve never thought about the work and intention that goes into setting up an art exhibit. But in talking with Dr. Hill, one begins to realize the significance of the role of the curator, who is choosing the art and setting up the exhibit in a way that can shape the experience of a visitor. And art can be incredibly powerful, even life-changing. Says Dr. Hill, “The place that I work from often is the feeling of when I was a young person who actually didn’t think that they liked art, in part because I didn’t feel like I saw my experiences reflected in the art that was supposed to be the most renowned, or a part of the canon. And so I think that even in my own research, part of what I do – centering black women/black femmes in my work, especially black woman artists, who are also cultural workers and community activists – is really gesturing at centering narratives that wouldn’t usually be included.”

Dr. Hill is involved with the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), a program started by two PSU professors, Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher, at Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School. The program connects elementary school students with artists who run workshops, create exhibitions, give lectures, and more. Students learn through experience about museum practice and careers in the arts, including learning about the work of not just artists but curators, preparators, gallerists, and docents. Dr. Hill worked with Rose, a fifth-grader at King, to curate an exhibit called “Welcome to My Happy Place.”


Says Dr. Hill, “That was such a rewarding experience… During one of the interviews that her and I had together, she talked about the importance of a black mentor, how excited she was to be able to have a black mentor, and how the program overall has helped her and her friends. How it is really a home away from home, in a sense. It’s just rewarding to be able to be part of someone’s story like that. I can’t wait to see what these kids do when they become adults, because I’m always just blown away every time I go into that school… The exposure [to art can] help kids nurture their creativity, help them expand their horizons, and know what’s possible for them. It’s something we all deserve. Like, how much happier would we all be as people if that was something that was like given to us?”

Dr. Hill is also teaching a variety of classes at PSU: an African American art history course that looks at the spectrum of black cultural expression of the 20th century; a class on the Black Arts Movement – her research area – that looks at visual art of the Black Power movement in the 60’s and 70’s; a post Black arts class, which looks at the influence of the Black Arts Movement, on the development of 21st century or black culture in the 21st century; and a History of  Art and Social Practice course. 

To all students, Dr. Hill encourages exploration and openness. “Just try sh**. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about college, is that there’s so many different classes and things you can take. Explore your curiosities. I’m aware that everybody’s situation is not the same, you know, financial constraints are very real. But if you can take one or two classes just out of sheer curiosity, do it, because it could be life changing. Sometimes it helps just have someone give you permission – you’re here to explore, so please do that.”

Dr. Hill and Rose’s exhibit, “Welcome to My Happy Place,” is on display at the Littman Gallery in Smith Student Union on the PSU campus, through March 17.

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