Alumni Profile: Hillary Presecan (Art History) is Looking to the Past to Help Create a Better Future
Program Manager of Community Development - Native Arts Professional Development
First Peoples Fund
Rapid City, South Dakota
(’08, BS Art History)
Hillary Presecan came to KCAD looking to converge her creativity with her passion for human connection. In the Art History program, she gained a deeper understanding of the time-tested power of art to transcend cultural boundaries—both in the classroom and out in the local community—which laid the groundwork for a journey that would take her around the world while radically enlarging her personal and professional perspective. Now, Hillary and her colleagues at the First Peoples Fund are working to strengthen Indigenous artists and communities, grow their creative practices into economic opportunity, transfer cultural practices to the next generation, and expand the Indigenous Arts Ecology.
What made you feel like KCAD was the right place for you?
KCAD’s positive reputation was reinforced for me by my high school art teacher, Ms. Dalzell. I looked at a lot of different schools, but after I had a portfolio review with a KCAD rep during a National Portfolio Day event, I felt confident that this was the school that would give me the most opportunity.
What attracted you to the Art History program, and what did you find once you landed there?
I’m fascinated by how art can tell us about the past and about the future simultaneously, and art history reveals how art connects people across cultures. That’s something I take into everything I do.
The Art History program has a great environment: supportive, open-minded, and very honest in the way it’s framed as a building block for graduate school, and ultimately, a career. I learned not just how to study history, but also how to make it come alive for others. Having the chance to do that again and again took my communication skills to another level.
Presecan poses with her diploma on the KCAD campus after graduating in 2008 (image courtesy of Hillary Presecan)
How do feel like the program helped you reach your own personal goals?
KCAD put me on the path I followed to where I am today, and I owe a lot of that to the Art History faculty’s dedication to meeting students where they are. They got to know me as a person, and they offered me an immense amount of support, both personally and professionally.
I was raised on the idea that we need to be involved in our communities, give back, be aware of our privilege, and be humbled by our good fortune. I wanted to continue that at KCAD, and my professors were very supportive of my volunteerism, even helping me find opportunities.
What were some of those opportunities, and how did they shape you?
Volunteering at GRAM [the Grand Rapids Art Museum] opened my eyes to the museum world. I eventually ended up working there as an intern in the education department, and later as a docent. I also volunteered at a community theater, and at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park helping organize walking tours of sculptures installed all over downtown Grand Rapids.
I owe all of these experiences to KCAD, and to the city of Grand Rapids for being so open to and supportive of the arts. My education gave me confidence to just go into galleries and museums and ask them how I could help. If there’s a way I can help others see how art can build relationships and understanding between different cultures and communities, I’ll pursue it.
You’ve made it a point to immerse yourself in as many different cultures as possible. What have those experiences meant to you?
While at KCAD, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Italy through Studio Art Centers International. That showed me the power of firsthand cultural immersion. I wanted to go abroad again as soon as I graduated, so I joined the Peace Corps and worked in Morocco as a Youth Developer. Actively living in a non-Western culture—where I was the minority—made me check my privilege and become more aware of the type of person I was projecting onto that community. I grew so much from that.
I bonded with the kids I was working with through art classes, which gave us a common language we could use to communicate better. Forming those relationships and being invited to share in Arab and Moroccan culture, it was very humbling, and it made me want to continue this kind of work.
Presecan says her experiences as a Peace Corps Youth Developer in Morocco (pictured above and below) "showed me the power of firsthand cultural immersion." (images courtesy of Hillary Presecan)
You did go on to earn an MA in Rural Development, specializing in Indigenous art and culture. How did that affect your trajectory?
I became very aware of the world around me, and of these vastly beautiful cultures that have been here since time immemorial. Grad school was where I found what I wanted to do as a profession, especially on a project where I had a chance to learn from Indigenous elders how to become a stronger and better ally in the arts. I presented at the Association of Tribal Archives and Museums, and met with who at the time was the Vice President of the First Peoples Fund [FPF]. I knew immediately that their mission aligned exactly with what I wanted to do.
You took a series of positions at other organizations before finding your way back to FPF, though. What were those experiences and what did you learn from them?
While earning my MA degree in Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I interned at the Anchorage Museum through the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center. As a Smithsonian intern, I archived portions of the Alaska Collections Project documentation including audio, video, photographs and transcripts that are part of the “Sharing Knowledge” website and “Living Our Cultures” exhibition. I also filmed and edited video on community-based language documentation with Roy Agloinga (Iñupiaq/White Mountain), including footage from the interview and his Smithsonian Spotlight presentation.
After the Smithisonian internship I worked at THE INDIAN MUSEUM OF NORTH AMERICA® at the Crazy Horse Memorial, coordinating with over 100 emerging Native artists annually to promote their work, support their development, and connect them to financial support opportunities. I was also a Collections Assistant, learning how to properly handle and respect Indigenous objects. From there, I went to the Denver Art Museum to work as a Curatorial Assistant in their Native Arts Department. My next stop was where things really took off though, doing public health work for the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center [GPTEC].
(above): Presecan working as a Collections Assistant at THE INDIAN MUSEUM OF NORTH AMERICA® at the Crazy Horse Memorial; (below): a collage of Presecan's curatorial work in the Native Arts Department of the Denver Art Museum (images courtesy of Hillary Presecan)
That seems like a bit of a shift from curatorial work. What was the impact of working in that space?
That’s where my passion and skill for relationship building grew. Having to earn the trust and respect of Indigenous peoples and communities, and taking the time to build those relationships by visiting their communities and earning their trust, those were life changing moments for me. I’m still growing and learning, but my experiences with GPTEC showed me that I could do this work.
How have you carried that experience into your current position at FPF?
At FPF, I am the Program Manager for Community Development where I manage a program called Native Artists Professional Development [NAPD]. It’s an open resource for Indigenous communities and Indigenous artists who want to learn how to develop a business plan around their creative practice. Last year, FPF was able to conduct over 30 trainings through both grant funding support and fee-based services like how to market yourself and your work, how to get involved with art markets and other entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as how to structure pricing to attract more business.
FPF’s NAPD training is nationally-known not only for the topics we cover for artists to be strong entrepreneurs, but also because we add an Indigenous lens to the curriculum, have certified Indigenous trainers who go into Tribal communities to do the NAPD trainings, and because a good portion of our training focuses on Indigenous values, vision, and—starting in 2021—Indigenous leadership. All nine sections of the NAPD training empowers Indigenous artists to become stronger entrepreneurs who can then turn around and share what they’ve learned with others in their communities.
Presecan (4th from left) and her colleagues at First Peoples Fund (images courtesy of First Peoples Fund)
What’s the approach to developing content for these trainings?
We engage directly with communities to find out what they’re interested in so we can gear our trainings and subject matter experts accordingly. For example, in fall 2019 FPF worked with our Native Community Development Financial Institution [Native CDFI] partner, Four Bands Community Fund to bring a one-day NAPD training event to their community in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, located in the Cheyenne River Nation.
We focused on topics that their local artists wanted to learn more about, like how to use a smartphone to photograph artwork. Roxanne Best, one of our amazing trainers from the Colville Nation in Washington state, taught the artists how to make light boxes, how to use a tripod, and how to tweak the phone camera settings to get the best light. Every artist walked away with their own light box, new networking connections, and a set of next steps to take to build their art business online.
(above and below):A FPF artist workshop being conducted in Nome, Alaska by Indigenous artists and FPF trainers Roxanne Best, Ben W. Sherman, and Robert Martinez through the NAPD. (image courtesy of First Peoples Fund, taken by Roxanne L Best)
And why is that kind of direct approach important to FPF's mission?
At FPF, we approach all of our work through an Indigenous lens, and our focus is on being a good relative to the people we serve. We want to make these trainings equitable, inclusive, and accessible to Indigenous communities, so that means being willing to go out into rural areas and meet people where they are, and offering online training to widen our reach.
How has your outreach had to change in response to COVID-19?
We’ve had to postpone or cancel our 2020 in-person NAPD trainings, but we’ve pivoted to offering a “drip-feed” version of our NAPD curriculum on a virtual platform through our Resilience Webinar Series. It’s a free bi-weekly series focusing on topics that are especially important for artists during these challenging times, like how to utilize social media to market your business, or navigating the performing arts in the context of the new world that COVID-19 has created.
A group of Indigenous artists at an FPF training session (image courtesy of First Peoples Fund)
When you talk about approaching your work through an Indigenous lens, what does that look like for you specifically, as someone who isn’t an Indigenous person?
Whenever I’m doing work with Indigenous communities, whenever I’m learning something from an Elder or an artist, I think of how I can share this with another non-Native person, because Indigenous people shouldn’t have that responsibility to bear alone. It’s about practicing empathy, awareness and understanding why people—Indigenous or not—feel the way they do and how non-native peoples can become strong allies.
As someone who has become aware of my white privilege and the fact that my culture colonized the United States, I believe we’ve become ignorant of that history. But it’s through the arts and those cross-cultural experiences and dialogues that can bring us together and be the starting point for people to start having those uncomfortable conservations to begin to create a more equitable future for everyone.
So, what’s next for you at FPF, and on your own journey?
I’m very committed to growing this programming and building more partnerships with Tribal communities and Native CDFI’s, both virtually and in-person, but I also want to focus on helping with strategic planning for FPF. I’m excited to be a part of that process, and I am currently earning an MA Certificate in Nonprofit Management through the University of South Dakota. I have found my professional home in the nonprofit world, and I want to learn as much as possible about this field to be a stronger asset to FPF and ally to the Indigenous communities we serve.
Ultimately though, I just want to continue to be an asset and an ally to the Tribal communities I serve through FPF and my community here in the Ȟe Sápa Black Hills of South Dakota. I’m volunteering at a local Indigenous art gallery space called Racing Magpie, I’m the Lead Volunteer Coordinator at a local Native art market in Rapid City called Native POP, and I serve on the Board of Directors for the Rapid City Arts Council.
It’s amazing to see how cultivating these relationships right where I live can flow out into the larger world in a positive way.
Learn more about the work Hillary Presecan and her colleagues at First Peoples Fund are doing at firstpeoplesfund.org