HMA Executive Director Announces Retirement (September 2016)

Hickory, NCLisë Swensson, who helped attract artists and exhibits from around the world to Hickory Museum of Art (HMA) and expanded its reach in the local community during more than 12 years as executive director, announced recently that she will retire.

Swensson, 65, who became HMA executive director in 2003, plans to leave her job in March 2017, giving the Museum’s board six months to search for a replacement.  Once her successor has been identified and employed by the Museum, she looks forward to continuing work in areas of art education, community arts, exhibitions and arts fundraising. Swensson is also eager to try her hand at art sales.

While she is sad to be leaving her work at HMA, Swensson said she is proud of the Museum’s accomplishments during her time as executive director.

“I continued the vision of (museum founder) Paul Whitener; I’m lucky to be a part of that,” she said. “I love working on projects with creative, passionate people, especially when a variety of cultural expressions are shared.”

HMA Board President Alan Jackson said Swensson has brought a high level of creativity, professionalism and enthusiasm to Hickory Museum of Art, which would not be the organization it is today if not for her energy and passion.

“Her efforts have made the Museum a true destination for local residents, as well as visitors from around the nation and the world,” Jackson said. “The quality and variety of exhibitions, educational activities and community events we have all enjoyed have been the result of a vision for the Museum that Lisë has created and shared since she first joined us.”

Kathryn Greathouse, executive director of the United Arts Council of Catawba County, said Swensson has made a tremendous contribution to HMA and the arts community in the Catawba Valley.

“None of us will forget what she has done for the Hickory Museum of Art and, indeed, the entire community here,” Greathouse said. “She has opened up HMA to new audiences and has initiated new programs that have been highly successful.  HMA has taken giant leaps forward under her leadership.”

Under Swensson’s guidance, the Museum drew nationally and internationally known artists and works, such as Israeli sculptor Orna Ben Ami’s exhibit, “The Softness of Iron,” and “Unexpected Beauty,” a collection of photos by Steve McCurry, who took the famous “Afghan Girl” photo that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. HMA partnered with the Catawba Valley Camera Club on the McCurry exhibit, which closed this past May.

In 2005, the Museum displayed “AFTERMATH,” an exhibition by New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz documenting the 9/11 terror attacks. The exhibit’s journey to Hickory began with a simple car trip that Swensson took. While driving to work the month after September 11, 2001, Swensson heard part of a radio interview with the nationally recognized Meyerowitz discussing his project documenting the monumental clean-up process at Ground Zero. 

“I just sat in my car and cried because this artist’s words moved me so much,” Swensson recalled.  “I wrote him an email and, months later, his assistant called me and said, ‘we’re impressed with what you wrote and, if we can work something out, we’re interested.’”

Former HMA board member and past president Mary Elizabeth Geitner said Swensson was key to attracting such strong exhibits.

“She has brought in wonderful exhibits, and it takes an executive director to make exhibits happen,” Geitner shared. “She has to knock on doors and get funding. Lisë hasn’t just holed herself up in the Museum; she has gone into the community.”

Swensson said she is also proud of the Museum’s efforts to reach into the community with programs such as Art for All, launched in 2004 soon after she arrived, that continues to involve low-income and at-risk children in art- making projects.

“The Hickory Museum of Art needs to be an integral part of this region and beyond,” she explained. “HMA is sometimes described as a ‘jewel on top of a crown.’ Instead of being ‘worn’ for special occasions, the Museum needs to be part of the day-to-day experiences of those representing all socio economic backgrounds and interests.”

HMA board member Trish Johnson said Swensson worked hard to connect the Museum with all parts of the community.

“Lisë tried to deliberately be inclusive of the entire community,” Johnson said. “She wanted the Museum to be reflective of the community, to involve the under-involved. She wanted everyone to feel the Museum was theirs.”

Swensson promoted diversity not just among people, but in art as well, Johnson said. In 2014, the Museum joined with the Hickory Pubic Library and the Hickory Community Theater to present a celebration of the play “Crowns,” about church hats worn by African American women. As part of the celebration, the Museum hosted a display of hats from members of the community.

“She’s always looking for avenues to make sure all people are included, from folk art to all kinds of art, not just paintings and drawings,” Johnson added. “She doesn’t miss the furniture aspect of it or the fabric aspect of it. She uses all media.”

Looking to the future, Swensson said the Museum has developed a partnership with the Downtown Newton Development Association and the City of Newton to sponsor the Foothills Folk Art Festival that will be held in historic downtown Newton on Saturday, October 1. This event is based on folk art festivals that HMA has held in Hickory and in Sherrills Ford since 2005.

Later this year, the Museum will feature contributions of women in the visual arts, including a partnership with Hickory Printing Solutions, which will produce a catalog and calendar for the exhibition “Woman Made: Women Artists from the Hickory Museum of Art Collection,” December 17, 2016 – April 23, 2017. The exhibition is being guest curated by Karin Borei. Additional community groups are encouraged to contact HMA to play a part in this multi-faceted celebration of women artists.

Swensson began as executive director in December 2003, when she and her husband, artist Dan Smith, moved to Hickory. Before that, she was director of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Va., from 1995 to 2003. She also has been chief art curator at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, S.C., director of the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County in Camden, S.C., and a high school teacher and coach.

Anyone interested in being considered for HMA’s executive director position will find application instructions at or by emailing

Hickory Museum of Art is located on the SALT Block, 243 3rd Avenue NE, Hickory. Admission is free. For more information about Museum exhibitions, art classes, field trips, and events, visit or call 828-327-8576.