Culture trip: Meet Ryan Hill of MOCA Tucson

By Tom Reardon. October 2019 Issue.

Ryan Hill of the

Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Tucson is a man on a bit of a mission. As

the deputy director of the museum, his role is to continually seek out that

which will bring thought provoking beauty to the twenty-two-year-old paean to

all things contemporary art in the Old Pueblo.

As MOCA leans into the back nine of 2019,

the museum continues to be a leader in Tucson for both art education and

inclusiveness. After moving from an old HazMat building on Toole Avenue to it’s

current digs in a former fire station on Church Avenue (265 South Church

Avenue, to be exact), MOCA is host to programs like “Stay Gold” on Tuesday

nights which invites LGBTQIA+ individuals ages 13-99 to create art while

discussing contemporary themes together and all levels of art experience and

knowledge are welcome. Recurring programs such as Stay Gold are provided free

to the community through an extensive grant program and are also complimented

by an array of new programs each month.

Art by J. Eric Simpson and Caleb Lightfoot from the current exhibition Groping in the Dark.

For Hill, 56, who moved to Tucson in July

of 2018 with his husband of six years, rock and roll guitarist and scene maker

Kid Congo Powers (who was featured in the June issue of Echo), the lack

of an executive director at MOCA has not impeded his role in the least. As a

longtime museum professional who has worked the Guggenheim in New York City,

the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Yale University Art Gallery, Hill

has embraced the opportunity work with his team at MOCA to build an enticing

upcoming calendar of events, as well as an equally exciting artist-in-residence

program that promises to benefit MOCA, art in Tucson, and Arizona as a whole.

The future is bright for both Hill, who is also an artist himself, and MOCA.

We caught up with Hill via phone while he

was working on a Sunday afternoon in early September to talk about his move to

Tucson, his art, and life at MOCA. Here’s what he had to say:

Ryan Hill, MOCA’s Deputy Director.

Echo: So, you

and Kid moved to Tucson about a year ago?

Ryan Hill: Let’s see, we moved here on July 5th of last year, so it’s been a

little over a year. My sister and my parents live here, and they’ve been here

for 20 years. We (Powers and Hill) grew up in that Los Angeles but my parents

retired out here so, when they moved out here, it meant that every holiday I

would come out and visit them. So, I got to know Tucson through visiting my


Where had you been


I was on the east

coast for a long time working in different museums. I first moved out to work

at the Guggenheim and then after that I worked for the Smithsonian for about 10

years. Then I worked at Yale (University) for three years. After that I

thought, “Okay, you know, my parents are getting older and maybe it’s time to

move back west.” Kid was cool with that and we decided to make the move.

That’s a big change

from working at Yale.

We were in New

Haven, Connecticut. So, it’s like the exact opposite of what it’s like here.

You can always go to

the top of Mount Lemmon to get something a little similar weather-wise. Did you

fall in love with Tucson while on those holiday visits?

Yeah, I think, I

think that’s true. I always liked coming here and it was very different from

the east coast. Tucson is more relaxed and a lot more lowkey. The sky is a lot

bigger and nature is a more of a priority here. You’re around nature more and

you’re going to be integrated into it. Where before, when we were kind of more

in these big city environments, you just never thought about it.

I think we were really excited for the

change and I was excited to be close to my family. We were both really open to

it and I know that Kid usually is good with moving anywhere. There is a great

music community here, so he’s was excited about that and we’re both closer to

our families in that way too.

You’ve been working in

museums for years. I’m assuming you have an art background

I have a master’s in film history and theory from UCLA. I went to UC

(University of California) Santa Cruz as an art major and got my undergrad

there but I also got really into film during that time. Then I followed a

professor to UCLA, and I got my master’s. After about three years of kind of

tooling around, I decided that I really needed to focus, not as much on film,

but more on my own artwork. So, then I went to California Institute of the Arts

and I got a Master of Fine Art there.

What is your medium?

What kind of work do you like to do when you’re working on your own stuff?

So, when I went the

Institute of the Arts, I was a painter, but I got less interested in what you

might call the monumentalism of painting. There’s a lot of historical baggage

around painting and it’s ... it can feel very limited in a certain sort of way

because people come at painting of certain expectations. So, I like taking the

casualness of drawing and kind of working on a bigger scale. I do these large

drawings or site-specific drawing installations.

What do you draw your

inspiration from, typically?

The way I’ve been

working in the past, I’m inspired by images from web searches and then that

kind of becomes a way of generating a series of work. It’s kind of like how

when you do a Google search, depending on the keywords you type in, you can go

in a lot of different directions, so I just allow myself to go into all those


I amass a bunch of images based on those

searches, and then I start to kind of either combine them or treat them

separately then I put them around people more atmospherically and

architecturally, so you’re kind of in the search. I develop a show based

on drawings that help people make connections, or unusual connections between

those drawings.

Oh wow. How long have

you been working this way?

I’ve been working

that way since 2007. I have a gallery in (Washington) D.C. that I started

working with about 10 years ago or so. Since moving here (to Tucson), I’m

working a bit more with abstraction during this last year. I spend a lot of

time on Instagram, so I’m consuming images so much.

It’s interesting to me

that you like the people who are experiencing your art to feel like they are in

the Google search. That seems very similar to the work you do at MOCA with

setting up installations for other artists. Does that make sense to you?

Yeah, I think

whenever I get a chance to do an installation, that’s the other thing I think

about. People who are installation artists, they’re a little bit like


I think people come to museums for all

kinds of reasons. Part of it is the architecture and being in an environment

that’s different from their home or the supermarket or the department store.

They want to be in what some people call a sacred space. I don’t think the

museums are sacred because that’s kind of a puritanical way of thinking about

it, but I do think that there are spaces that allow people to reflect or enjoy

a new framework that they’re not used to.

Museums, especially, are carriers of

history and culture so they’re super loaded spaces where people go and they may

not even be conscious of that, but they’re kind of absorbing cultural biases

when they’re in the space and they’re absorbing late 19th century ideas about

how reality is organized. So, for me, I’ve been in these spaces for a good 25

years and so there’s a part of me that also wants to challenge the way people

think about it.

Absher/Rejoice! installation performance by Sara Bahermez.

Especially as a queer person, after a while, what’s considered naturally normal for most people you start to go, “Wait a second, my experience isn’t that.” And then when you talk to people who aren’t clear or who don’t identify as queer, they have those feelings too. So, for me, it’s really about creating an environment with a certain amount of sense of humor about itself. What’s great about it, and one of the reasons why I’m working at MOCA, is that the space doesn’t have a collection, so you don’t have to be anchored to ideas of what taste is. It can always be changing with every exhibition.

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