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Evelyn Hankins of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Discusses the Need for More Women to Become Tastemakers

03/03/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

As a curator you have to be conscious of who you are showing and why you are showing that artist. It is not enough to say that you are showing women artists, because different groups of women struggle differently. Furthermore, the most important criterion for showing any artist's work, according to Evelyn Hankins, Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, is that the work is interesting and engaging.

I first became aware of Hankins's work when she came to give a lecture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She presented on the work of the artist Jennie C. Jones, and later in the summer I ventured down to the Hirshhorn Museum to see the impeccable work that she had done curating Jones's work. Jones's paintings were shown alongside sounds and it was the first time I thought about adding sound to my own practice. Indeed, in her presentation at MICA, Hankins talked about the challenges and rewards of working with sound as a visual medium within a museum space.

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Evelyn Hankins was born outside of Boston -- where she lived for 12 years -- before she moved to Austin, Texas. She would go on to get her bachelor's degree in art history from UC Santa Barbara, and her master's and PhD degrees from Stanford University. "I did not know it then," Hankins said of her time getting her master's and doctorate, "but I was pretty lucky to have that time to dedicate solely to art history. For one thing, it is very helpful, the doctorate, in dealing with historical art. Writing my dissertation also taught me how to handle a large, unwieldy project, which is a very useful skill in being a curator." She would go on to be an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum before being curator at the University of Vermont. She has been at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden since 2007.

For Hankins, just by looking at the roster of exhibitions, women have made a lot of progress as visual artists, in having their works shown. But showing women's work is not enough. What we need, Hankins believes, are more female chief curators and more women as directors of big encyclopedic museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That will be the next big sign of progress. "We need more women as tastemakers," Hankins maintains. "And then there is the art market that is really skewed towards men. I guess for me, the question is, who is collecting art and who is advising the collectors of art? How do the top dealers price and sell women's work? These are some of the main areas in which women artists continue to struggle today."

To overcome some of the obstacles in the art market and larger art world, Hankins advises women artists to develop a network of friends and colleagues whom they can invite over to look at and discuss their work. As a curator she finds that other artists give the best advice as to whose work to see since artists are more keyed into what their peers are doing. But even more than that, Hankins maintains, in building a network and inviting other artists over to talk about their work, artists come to know how best to present and talk about their work, a necessary skill in the art world.

Hankins continues, "Another thing that I would say to women artists is that there is no shame, no shame at all, in having your home -- your tiny apartment, for example -- be your studio. Still show your work there, in your small apartment, and invite people over to come and talk about your work with you. I cannot say this enough, the importance of building your artistic community and learning how best to talk about your work."

Another bit of advice that she would give to artists in general is to take control of the trajectory of their work from very early on in their career. There can be, Hankins believes, an over-reliance on sensationalism. "That can get you going for a while, but artists need to realize that you can become over-identified with these sensationalist and taboo subjects, and the question then becomes where do you go from there? How do you move beyond that? What do you do next? I think in their careers artists, particularly women artists, really need to give some thought to the overall and long-term sustainability of their work."

For young women who want to be curators, her advice is similar to building a network and learning to talk about art, except that she believes the emphasis here is on studying art history and developing increased critical skills. "For all the discussion of how we as a society have relied too much on internship power, I still believe that being an intern in an art institution is the best way to enter the field of curating. As an intern you can get your feet wet and you can get necessary curatorial experience."

Through interning you can also learn first-hand some of the challenges of the job. "Today there is a lot of interest in what curators do, and in curating, which is linked to the explosion of the general art market and development of social media. But would-be curators need to bear in mind that oftentimes those venues only portray part of the job that curators do, and those are the most glamorous parts. There can be a lot of travelling associated with curating, and this can be quite a struggle if you are trying to balance a family life, for example. That is one thing that I would caution would-be curators to know about before entering the field -- that balancing a home and family life can be quite challenging."

With all that being said, Evelyn Hankins loves being a curator. "It is absolutely fantastic!" she enthuses. "The best part about being a curator is being plugged into a piece of work. I absolutely love working with objects. It is true that working with living artists can be complicated at times, but I find this, at the end of the day, quite satisfying. When you are working with a living artist you are trying to get this artist to do the best work that they can do, and this can be incredibly exciting. As a curator I like being challenged to deal with different issues, real time issues in a real space. I like considering and trying to talk to different audiences with various bodies of work."

What's more, Hankins loves being a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. "Specifically, what I love about the Hirshhorn is the fact that we are small-staffed enough that no one is restricted to just one area or specialization. I can propose to curate shows for any time period. I love the flexibility of that. But there are other things that I like about working at the Hirshhorn Museum. For one thing, I absolutely love the building. Works of art just look amazing here. The galleries have just been renovated for our fortieth anniversary, and I have to tell you, things have never looked better."

Until next time.