Impressionist Art Trove in Connecticut, Hill-Stead, Poised to Grow Under New Director


"The Tub," by Edgar Degas, pastel on blue-grey paper, ca. 1885-86; image courtesy of the Hill-Stead Museum.

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It was like listening to the record of a symphony before
you knew anything at all about the music,
what the instruments might sound like, look like, what
portion of the orchestra each represented:
there were only volumes and velocities, thickenings and
thinnings, the winding cries of change 

So opens C.K. Williams’ poem First Desires, as printed in The New Yorker in 1986.

It’s unfair entirely to excerpt this jewel about the first manifestations of romantic love, chiseled by the poet with the type of lapidary perfection that yields the gem within the coarser raw, emotional resource.

But that unfairness admitted, the words of a poet who has notably appeared in Connecticut at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington might also be summoned—or at least the vertiginous but narcotic feeling behind the words—to describe not the response to love, or music, but to the French Impressionist paintings that define the Hill-Stead and its enduring appeal. (Above, Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926) Grainstacks, in Bright Sunlight, 1890.)

“In the late eighteen-hundreds, French Impressionist paintings were as avant-garde as graffiti ‘tags’ are today,” one section of the Hill-Stead’s website points out in reference to the shock-of-the-new phenomenon that greeted the Impressionists when their paintings were first shown in Paris.

The critic Louis Leroy famously wrote in 1874 about Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” that a “preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more highly finished than this seascape.”

The French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé, a defender of the Impressionists, covered both sides of the debate in describing the reaction not to Monet but Manet: “The reproach that superficial people formulate against Manet, that whereas once he painted ugliness, now he paints vulgarity, falls harmlessly to the ground, when we recognize the fact that he paints the truth."

To this day, as comfortable and familiar as these paintings have become, they retain their power to get the aesthetic heart pumping, because seeing such masterworks, especially first-hand in intimate settings like the genteel domestic spaces of the Hill-Stead, is thrillingly like “listening to the record of a symphony” without knowing exactly how the composer makes the music move. (Above, Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883) The Guitar Player, 1866.)

And seeing within these paintings the “volumes and velocities, thickenings and thinnings, the winding cries of change” is always intoxicating, an experience that beautifully exists just below the level of articulate quantification.

The Hill-Stead has that power—but a century on from its arrival as a 33,000-square-foot grand house filled with art and antiques, the magic has become a bit static, perhaps even overlooked, as the museum has become a challenge to maintain and the need for new energy, funds and future direction have become as evident as the Impressionists’ revolutionary talents.

That’s where Susan Ballek comes in. At the beginning of this past November, the Hill-Stead’s Board of Governors appointed Ballek as director & CEO of the museum. She comes from the Lyme Art Association, a vibrant, membership-based organization founded in 1914 by the Lyme Impressionists, where she had served as executive director since 2009.

“In addition to overseeing all day-to-day operations [at the Lyme Art Association], Ballek has successfully attracted new donors and members, sought out public and private funding, and maintained the financial health of the organization during challenging economic times,” a release on her appointment noted.

Now it’s Ballek’s job to do the same fiscal restoration for the Hill-Stead, while also instituting innovations that will re-engage and broaden the museum’s audience and its level of engagement, and find new ways to showcase a stunning collection—issues Ballek discussed with great vision and enthusiasm in a recent interview. (Above, Ballek in a photo by Deborah Key Mundair. Above left, the West Façade of the Hill-Stead in a photo by JL Thompson.)

For anyone unfamiliar with the raw material she has to work with, here’s the quick summary from the website:

Hill-Stead Museum is noted for its 1901 33,000-square-foot house filled with art and antiques. Pioneering female architect Theodate Pope Riddle designed the grand house, set on 152 hilltop acres, to showcase the Impressionist masterpieces amassed by her father, Cleveland iron industrialist Alfred A. Pope. Hill-Stead is one of the nation’s few remaining representations of early-20th-century Country Place Estates. Collections include original furnishings, paintings by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, James M. Whistler and Mary Cassatt, as well as numerous works on paper and Japanese woodblock prints. Stately trees, seasonal gardens, meadows, over three miles of stone walls and blazed hiking trails accent the grounds. A centerpiece of the property is the circa 1920 sunken garden designed by Beatrix Farrand, today the site of the renowned Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. The 1901 period rooms are open for tours Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The last tour of the day begins at 3 p.m. Grounds are open daily 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For tour and program information, browse or call (860) 677-4787.

When we met a few weeks ago, Ballek had just learned that the landmark poetry festival’s 2014 run had been secured, a status formally reflected in a release Jan. 30, when the Hill-Stead announced that it was the recipient of a public presentation implementation grant from Connecticut Humanities for this summer’s festival, which will be the 21st for the literary and music series.

It has featured nationally-recognized and award-winning poets, including Billy Collins, Yusef Komunyakaa, Maxine Kumin, C.K. Williams and Grace Paley, and has drawn annual audiences of more than 5,000. The 2014 festival dates and events will be announced in the spring.

“Hill-Stead Museum has been awarded a $35,000 grant from Connecticut Humanities to present the 2014 Sunken Garden Poetry Festival,” Ballek elaborated in an email, adding, “The museum is actively seeking corporate and individual support to supplement this generous gift, ensuring the festival is sustainable for many years to come.” 

The latter part of the statement might be applied to every aspect of the Hill-Stead. Ballek’s biggest shock upon arrival was the magnitude and demands of the budget; $60,000 for electricity each year and $50,000 spent on heating and air conditioning, for example. “Those are not the glamorous things here,” she says, adding, “Everything has been cut as much as possible.”

The budget is balanced, though, and capital work is even slated on the roof, the fire protection and HVAC systems and the parking lot—but Ballek has to keep a watchful eye on the spending, as she endeavors to ramp up fundraising and planned giving, if she hopes to gently transform the Hill-Stead from a beloved artistic/historical resource into a world-class and always-changing destination.

Balleck’s arrival finds the Hill-Stead at that exact crossroads—a sort of collision between the fiscal pressures and the frozen-in-time nature of the museum, factors that cross-pollinate in ways that heighten the challenge.

“Our collection at the moment is static,” Ballek acknowledges. It’s not meant as an indication of any diminishment in status but as a simple statement of fact: the Hill-Stead, by definition, has a fixed narrative and a finite universe of artistic charms with which to attract new audiences, energy and funding. (Above, Edgar Hilaire Degas (French, 1834–1917) Dancers in Pink, c. 1876.)

Or does it?

Impressionist Art Trove in Connecticut, Hill-Stead, Poised to Grow Under New Director

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