Art can inspire and challenge. It can serve as storyteller and historian. It can exist simply to make the world more beautiful.
But for Melissa Hiller, director of the American Jewish Museum, art has another fundamental purpose as well: It serves as a catalyst to build community.
“My primary objective here is public engagement and community building,” said Hiller, who has served as director of the AJM, located at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill, for the last five years. “The American Jewish Museum doesn’t build audiences; it builds communities.”
The vivacious and articulate Hiller came to Pittsburgh’s AJM with a solid curatorial background, having earned an advanced degree in curatorial studies at Bard College in New York, then working for several years at the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design in Lancaster.
But while she has spent most of her career in the art and cultural world, her post at the AJM is the first space she has worked that has “a particular cultural identity attached to it,” she said.
The AJM does not have a permanent collection, she noted, but rather serves as a venue to present a variety of contemporary exhibitions that are all somehow connected to Jewish culture.
Originally from Lancaster, Hiller earned her undergraduate degree in art history at the University of Pittsburgh. While she does not have a background specific to Jewish art, she said, “it is something that really interested me as a curator.”
With support from the Council of American Jewish Museums, an umbrella organization for Jewish museums nationwide, Hiller was able to quickly get up to speed on “how to present Jewish content in our community, and also in the context of the world,” she said.
Her goal, she added, is to work in tandem with the JCC’s values and mission of community building.
The variety of exhibitions she has curated since she assumed her post proves that she is doing just that, but with a hefty dose of creativity.
Last year, for example, she curated an exhibit by Sephardic artist Micaela Amateau Amato, whose work is influenced by the origins of Islamic, Romani and Jewish sources evident in flamenco poetry, music and dance.
“Flamenco is a really big interest of hers,” Hiller noted, “and it comes out through her artwork through references to poetry and the momentum and pace of flamenco music.”
Amato, Hiller continued, explores her artwork through “a Sephardic lens, bringing forth a language that explores Sephardic history. For her, flamenco music and the history of flamenco music, rings true to her expression.”
So, the “only reasonable thing for me as a curator to do,” Hiller said, “was to bring that to fruition by having a flamenco performance.”
Fortunately, Pittsburgh is home to the performance ensemble Alba Flamenco, who Hiller enlisted to perform in the JCC’s Katz Theater last March in conjunction with Amato’s exhibit.
“For me, that was a constellation of some outcomes based on my goals,” Hiller said. “I got to engage audiences with an experience that linked Jewish art to flamenco dancing. Who would have ever guessed?”
Hiller hopes to dispel the misconception that going to a museum event necessarily involves sitting in a darkened room, listening to a lecturer and watching a slide-show presentation.
“Not that there is anything wrong with that,” she was quick to note. “But curators are mindful of experiences that are going to bring audiences and families back. Here, we had a Jewish artist delving into Jewish content, and I grew that into something beyond that while supporting the local arts economy; hiring the flamenco group was also important to me.”
Another recent notable exhibit curated by Hiller was a retrospective of late Jewish printmaker Susan Winicour, who spent each winter in Berlin and who had an “affinity for small, potently charged German circuses,” Hiller said.
“The people in her work all cavort as a cabaret, but there’s also a tangible feeling of pathos and detachment among her figures as well,” she continued. “They don’t make contact with each other.”
Building upon Winicour’s work, Hiller decided to commission a circus to create a performance inspired by those prints.
“We had this amazingly wild circus for the opening reception,” Hiller recalled, adding that about 300 people turned out to see local artist Ben Sota’s Zany Umbrella Circus informed by Winicour’s work, and bringing her imagery to life.
“It was a fertile type of experience,” Hiller said. “Ben didn’t just come here and do a circus. We met with Susan’s family, her daughter and her grandchildren. We talked about her and her work. Then Ben came here and looked closely at her artwork and made a 45-minute circus.”
The community is lucky, Hiller said, to have such creative forces in Pittsburgh.
A project that is currently in the works for Hiller — “Jane Haskell: Drawing In Light” — likewise draws on a community partnership. That exhibit is slated to open in October 2015.
Haskell, a Jewish artist who passed away in 2013, was a well-loved community member who sat on the boards of several organizations, including the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Jewish Family & Children’s Service. She was a student of Samuel Rosenberg, who was also a teacher to Andy Warhol.
“ ‘Drawing in the Light’ is a very important project to me because I knew her and felt so strongly about her, and her as an artist,” Hiller said of Haskell. “She was so deeply involved in what she felt so passionately about. Those of us who knew her want to bring out not only her work as an artist, but how important a person she was in Pittsburgh.”
While Hiller is curating about 30 of Haskell’s works at the AJM, the Carnegie Museum will curate a parallel exhibit called “Jane Haskell’s Modernism,” which will focus on her work as a “collector and tastemaker,” Hiller said.
The two parallel exhibits are intended to present even greater insight into Haskell.
“There is the Jewish concept of chavruta,” Hiller said. “Two minds are better than one. The idea of chavruta is two minds working together, juxtaposing ideas and debating ideas — it lets each person have greater insight than if they were thinking and problem solving on their own.”
Haskell, Hiller said, as an intellect and contributor to the community, “embraced chavruta in a 21st-century kind of way,” and she hopes the AJM’s partnership with the Carnegie Museum will embody Haskell’s exemplar of chavruta.
“We will be working together with the Carnegie showing Jane from different perspectives,” she said, “and showing Jane from how we each knew her. It’s important for me that the chavruta idea undergirds everything about this project.”
The Haskell project is an example of what community means to her and the AJM, Hiller said.
“I support artists and art making,” she said. “I champion ideas and promote partnerships.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.