The Museum is thrilled to welcome Horace Ballard as our new Curator of Education. A former museum educator at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Ballard’s extensive experience in art, culture, and visitor engagement make him well equipped to connect the Birmingham community with the art on our walls. Learn more about his background and plans for the future below:
Birmingham Museum of Art: You have worked at a number of cultural institutions, including the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Yale University Art Museum, and the Haffrenreffer Museum of Anthropology, among others. How and when did your interest in art and culture begin?
Horace Ballard: My interest in the performing arts began when I was very young. As a toddler, I had trouble walking and would often fall and hurt myself when wearing shoes. The pediatrician recommended that my parents enroll me in gymnastics and ballet classes when I was three years old. I loved it so much that by the age of six, I was taking voice, piano, ballet, tap, and theatre classes. We moved around every four to five years due to my parents’ careers and the arts were a way of making friends and getting acclimated to new locations.
The visual arts were also a significant part of my family and childhood. I have two uncles who are painters; an uncle who was a window dresser/art designer for department stores in New York City; an aunt who is a sculptor; and a cousin who specializes in architectural photography in Washington, D.C. During my first month of college, I answered a newspaper ad for an intern with a preschool art-making camp at the local museum on weekends. I took the job as an easy way to make pizza money but grew to love it so much that I began seeking out sustained opportunities to guide, curate, and teach in front of works of art. By my second-year of college, I began giving architectural tours of the Lawn at the University of Virginia and Monticello while taking courses in American art, modern architecture, and aesthetic theory. My first job out of undergrad was as a full-time guide in the Education/Interpretation department at Monticello and, nine years later, here I am!
BMA: What is your favorite part about being a museum educator?
HB: I am often asked why I consistently choose to work in museum education when I am trained to be a collections curator of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art, with especial knowledge of early-modern photography. My answer is simple: “Works of art ask questions, and I want to be there when an audience answers those questions and then, in turn, asks new questions about artistic process, material, and display.” I really love facilitating the construction of “moments” that allow an individual or group to sit quietly or debate passionately in front of a work of art. Museum education is an ever-debated, ever-misunderstood, ever-changing field with historic ties to political movements, the history of philosophical inquiry, and contemporary notions of socioeconomic justice. I love inviting viewers to enter into a relationship with an object that proves as ever changing and profound as our lived experience.
BMA: You recently finished your dissertation, entitled Man-made: Photography and the Re-construction of Beauty in America, 1850-1900. What interests you about this topic?
HB: The effects of the Civil War on medical care, politics, labor, economics, and innovations in transportation and communication are well known and well documented. What seemed missing from the historical record was a definitive understanding of the ways in which the sectarian conflict affected “norms” of gender-performance and beauty for American men. My project reads images by Alexander Gardner, Thomas Eakins, William Bell, and Fred Holland Day in an attempt to argue that masculinity was culturally “re-constructed” by photography after the war.
BMA: During your time in the Education Department at RISD, you began a monthly series called “Ways of Looking: One Hour/One Work,” in which visitors spend an hour looking carefully at and discussing one work of art with the help of a museum educator. What programs do you hope to initiate at the BMA?
HB: Museum programming and new civic initiatives work best, I think, after one knows the collection and the flow of information at an institution. My first few months will be spent learning, listening, and galvanizing the Education team — docents and staff — around a set of shared goals and objectives. From this work will arise areas of focus, i.e., the innovative use of resources and space, interpretive goals for the collections, or concentrated engagement with specific communities within our broader region, for which new initiatives can be created.
BMA: You have spent many years further north in Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. What are you looking forward to most about life down South?
HB: Rich one-on-one conversations over great food!