Meet teamHMA! Clarissa Starnes, Associate Director


I grew up in Hickory and have lived here my entire life. It’s my forever home. I’m a Clyde Campbell Elementary, Arndt Middle, St. Stephens High and LR University girl. I, like many of our members, remember eating at Annabelle’s, getting clothes at Lee ‘and Ann’s, buying shoes at Angelo’s, going to the drive-in – two of them, and connecting with all of the local favorites. I know the streets by who used to live where and who used to own what and I know tons of local lore. From a young age, I visited, appreciated and connected with almost all of the area landmarks and institutions, Murray’s Mill being my favorite, and I know the short, little Bunker Hill Covered Bridge melody, do you?

To be completely honest though, during those growing-up years, I connected with all of the special places in town except one. Hickory Museum of Art. I, of course, knew there was an art museum in town but for whatever reason, didn’t visit at all until I was in my twenties. In fact, it wasn’t until I was even older than that that I found out that it was my actual true home.

I went back to school non-traditionally, starting in my late 30s. And when I did, the creative bug I had had my whole life, the love of color and texture, the need to express myself, the unidentified yearning, the artist within me finally found her voice, her identity, her calling and I majored in studio art. I started painting and learning and connecting for the first time in my life. Connecting with the world around me in a way that was new and fresh and true and I began really seeing the world. It was amazing.


During these years, I was working part-time jobs and going to school and I met an amazing woman through the preschool class I was teaching. Her name was Ginny Zellmer and she was (and is!) the Education Manager of Hickory Museum of Art. As our friendship developed, she asked me to help with some classes, summer camps, and birthday parties, and I ended up teaching the ART for ALL program for underserved and at-risk children in our community. I cherished those classes.

While feeding my brain at LR and soaking up all of the history, technique, and theory I could, I was getting to serve my town in a meaningful way. I was working with children and seeing art impact their lives at an age much earlier than it had directly affected mine (that I consciously knew of anyway!). Every time I walked through the door of the museum, as a staff member, I felt honored. And humbled. I began wandering through galleries and experiencing. I began to breathe in artwork. I looked at paintings in between classes. Sometimes, I just walked the spaces in utter disbelief that I got to work here even if only a few hours a week. It felt so right.

As my LR graduation day approached, I began to wonder what I would do with this art degree. Paint is all I could think but I knew the reality was that a paycheck would certainly benefit my family. I had a dream one night that I was in my car and I kept pulling into the parking lot of the museum and getting out and going into the museum. Over and over and over again. I can still see that dream vividly. I took it to heart and the next day, I knocked on the Director’s door and expressed my interest in having more at the museum, said that I loved it here, and that I was looking for full-time work even though I knew there were no job openings and of course, she told me the same. But guess what? That night around 9pm, she called and offered me a full-time position because someone turned in their notice unexpectedly right after I left her office.


I started one month after graduation as Collections and Galleria Manager. Retail experience I had, but working with the collection was new to me. I threw myself wholeheartedly into that job, reading and taking in as much information as possible, building relationships with members, artists, and staff, and finding it each and every day equally amazing to even have been given keys to a nationally-accredited art museum! I had started literally coming to the parking lot and getting out of my car over and over again and I absolutely adored every second of it. It fit me. It was art and a lot of data stuff that perfectly fit my equally–right-and-left-brain, as I was told I had when I was hired.


After a while, I expressed my interest in having more again. That interest plus a leadership transition and, dare I say, my insane passion and work ethic, landed me the position I have now. Associate Director. I’m in the middle of things - staff, engagement, collections, exhibitions, experiences, humidity control, I run staff meetings, help with budgeting, oversee the tracking of everything, I mean, you name it and I help – shoot, we even call my office Grand Central. And I love this job even more. I breathe easier now. My heart beats more regular and my soul is calm with even way more to do. And I think I’m pretty decent at it. It fits even better than what I started with.


This place is my home. I have never been more sure of anything. The way I always thought this town itself was my home, and it still is, but now that home feeling is way, way more honed in and it engulfs me every day. My passion has now grown to include making sure that no other Hickory kids make it into their 20s without knowing about us like I did, to make sure they know about Hickory Museum of Art, to make sure they know about my home. And to make sure we do everything we can to make sure it feels like and becomes theirs too.


I drive into the museum’s parking lot more frequently than ever, and get out of my car more than even in that dream, and I am thankful and honored and blessed to get to do it.

I hope to do it thousands and thousands of times more.  

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This post is # 41 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.

Post written by Clarissa Starnes, Associate Director