An enduring quote in the English language sounds like the pronouncement of a cognitive psychologist but was actually penned by author F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." That could describe DJ Hellerman right now. He is simultaneously brimming with thoughts about an exciting new venture and ruminating on what he's leaving behind. And this week, as he installs his last set of exhibits at the BCA Center, he is most definitely functioning in high gear.
In a newsletter last month, Burlington City Arts executive director Doreen Kraft announced that the organization's chief curator and director of exhibitions would be leaving his post after less than four years. By phone, Hellerman told Seven Days, "It was a really tough decision to make, and not one that happened because I am unhappy here." An opening for the position of curator of art and programs at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., was simply not something he could pass up.
Hellerman will depart after this Friday's receptions for metal sculptor Cal Lane and Burlington artist Clark Derbes at the BCA Center.
Hellerman previously worked at the Progressive Art Collection in Cleveland, Ohio, his hometown, where he still owns a house. On trips back there, he noted, he sometimes stopped at the Everson— Syracuse is a halfway point.
The museum got its start in the late 19th century and moved into a minimalist I.M. Pei-designed building in 1968. Its large collection, as Hellerman put it, "is quirky, unique and interesting to me." And just as the Rust Belt city is redefining itself, so has its museum. "When the world changes, museums have to change and grow, too," Hellerman told Seven Days.
Over the past year, Hellerman could tell that things were changing at the Everson, since Elizabeth Dunbar had become director and CEO. "Just looking at [the museum's] newsletter, the amount of events before and since Elizabeth came, it's more than doubled," he said. "The place started to come on my radar."
Over coffee recently, Hellerman reiterated that it was "bittersweet to leave" BCA and Vermont. In a conversation that both reviewed his experiences here and anticipated his new venture, the curator handily illustrated Fitzgerald's observation. The following are excerpts.
SEVEN DAYS: How did the job at Everson come up? Were you headhunted?
DJ HELLERMAN: No, I found out about it through artist friends. It just came up as a great opportunity, and I applied. As artists say, you need to grow your practice.
SD: What have you learned here that you'll take to the Everson?
DJH: I think BCA is ahead of a lot of arts organizations in how it interacts with the community. The needs of the community are always at the top of the conversation here. I don't know if it's because of its roots — it's always been an incubator, a helper. BCA is a "yes" organization ... I'll have an opportunity to interact with the community in a different way at Everson.
SD: Do you think you have brought the gallery, and its mission, farther over your time here?
DJH: It's for someone else to judge whether I've taken it farther. I hope I have helped.
SD: You talked to me about how the Everson Museum, like Syracuse itself, is changing. What role do regional art institutions have now?
DJH: I don't know the answer to that, but I want to find out. They call themselves an American art museum but have an international ceramics collection.
SD: What are you most proud of in your time at BCA?
DJH: [Pauses to think.] I feel it was somehow significant that we've never said no to a studio visit. Maybe it's a matter of figuring out as much as you can about what's happening here. I always felt that, the deeper you dig here, the more you get. Four years isn't that long a time, but it's a good amount of time, and I'm still really constantly surprised by what I find.
SD: Do any exhibits stand out for you? What about the statewide "Of Land & Local"?
DJH: I could talk about the shows, but it's always bigger than the shows. The exhibits are a way to shoot energy into the world ...
Regarding "Of Land and Local," when I first got here, Doreen and [assistant director] Sara [Katz] said, "Do whatever you want, but we do think there could be a show about food." In the process of trying to figure out what a show about food meant, I realized it was about the land. Listening to a farmer at the farmers market talk about a tomato, I realized it was similar to how artists talk about their work.
Whether "Of Land & Local" will continue, I don't know, but if it needs to end, it will. BCA does new things all the time. Talking about new shows is a team effort, always.
SD: Tell me how you feel about this career move.
DJH: It's a hybrid between what I did at Progressive and what I've done at BCA. I'm excited about working with a collection again. I'm also nervous. You come with a thousand ideas; they might mean everything, or nothing.
Learning the place is important. Four years later [in Burlington], the way I think about the world is different; the way I think about what art can do and be is different ... I'm still shocked I can make a living doing this.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Exit Interview: Seven Questions for Curator DJ Hellerman"