Impressionist Art Trove in Connecticut, Hill-Stead, Poised to Grow Under New Director
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The museum board sees opportunities beyond the channels of presentation through which the mission has so long flowed, and Ballek is a leader perfectly positioned to translate those aspirations into tangible—and potentially very dramatic—new assets and impact.
The following are not Ballek’s words, but perhaps a hint of the Hill-Stead’s future can be found in Old Lyme, where Ballek was “very happy,” and where she was adjacent to a wonderful artistic legacy that underwent a transformative expansion in the recent past.
Close by the Lyme Art Association is another Connecticut gem, the Florence Griswold Museum, a house museum with distinct parallels to the Hill-Stead. In the past, even folks who loved visiting the former boarding house where American Impressionists summered and painted in Connecticut would have to space out those visits; otherwise the collection and the tour became too familiar.
Thanks to a Centennial Campaign begun in 1998 to raise $8.3 million, the museum opened the Robert and Nancy Krieble Gallery in 2002, overlooking the Lieutenant River, which provides 10,000 square feet of space for rotating exhibitions, visitor services, and art storage. Now the tour of Miss Florence’s house and its collection is just one terrific foundational part of a much larger experience.
“I’ve got great bones to work with here,” says Ballek of the Hill-Stead, and the property has room on which to grow, which is promising on both counts, as the museum’s new director and the board want to be able to present rotating exhibits, broaden the mission of the museum and raise the Hill-Stead’s visibility on a national level.
Ballek hopes there will be rotating exhibitions by the summer of 2015, which would obviously mean a space in which they can be presented. Merely dreaming of the possibilities suggested by the Hill-Stead’s collections brings forth goose bumps: an exhibit that unites Monet’s painting of haystacks in bright sunlight with his other versions of the subject, a similar show based on Degas’ dancers, or one pairing Manet’s “Guitar Player” with other works of early Impressionism.
In addition, the vision under Ballek is to spur and an increase in family-oriented exhibits and programming, along with increased interaction with schools. And that signals the need for an education center. (Above, the garden path to the Summerhouse.)
In addition to such big-picture growth, there are also smaller changes and enhancements that could make a big difference. Thinking of how some of the museum’s atmospheric etchings by European and American artists, such as Whistler, are now viewed by visitors as they ascend a narrow staircase, Ballek says these are “works most visitors don’t get to properly view.”
And that, she says, is “a potential exhibition right there.” All of the Hill-Stead’s tours are guided, and the fact that, as Ballek says, “A one-hour tour of the Hill-Stead is never enough,” leaves plenty of avenues open to focus on specific thematic riches in individual exhibits. (Left, Whistler's Upright Venice, Etching from The Second Venice Set, ca. 1885.)
The Art/Collections section on the museum’s website, for examples, offers deeper looks in a list of categories: architecture; garden & grounds; prints and drawings; photographs; furnishings; sculpture; decorative arts; rugs and textiles; books, and more. All of it is treasure that deserves sustained moments in the spotlight.
Also under review is not just what the museum shows but how it does so. Ballek recounts visiting the New Britain Museum of American Art and talk;ing with its director, Douglas Hyland, about how tours might be conducted via Skype or iPads for those who could not visit in person.
“We could still share the story of the Hill-Stead,” says Ballek.
Digital audio tours are another possibility, and website itself will undergo improvements, one of which will make it more accessible to low-vision readers.
Those things said, especially at a house museum like the Hill-Stead, the experience “can’t be replicated digitally,” Ballek says—though she stresses in a general sense, “The mission of the museum can be broadened.”
And that will surely mean a greater use of the property, where there are now sheep year-round as part of an effort to tell the story of a key Connecticut historic site as fully as possible.
Asked if she has a favorite aspect or work of art at the Hill-Stead, beyond praising the staff and its dedication Ballek admits her love for the Degas’ pastel “Jockeys" (below). It’s a natural affinity, as she’s “a horse person.”
Ballek is also a fine artist in her own right, a sculptor of large-scale metal works, and has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Art from the University of Oregon. Her artwork has been exhibited in both Connecticut and Oregon.
“I’m hoping that’s something I will get back to,” Ballek says of her large abstract works, some of which weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.
In announcing the appointment of Ballek this past November, Tim Corbett, president of Hill-Stead’s Board of Governors, said, “Susan’s collaborative and results-oriented style, plus comprehensive development, customer, volunteer, and program experiences within the arts community make her an ideal leader for Hill-Stead. Her energy and focus are infectious and have been demonstrated throughout her career by her professional and volunteer accomplishments.”
“Residents of the Greater Hartford area are so fortunate to have this breathtaking estate and art collection right in their backyard, and I can't wait to re-engage the community with new excerpts from the life of Theodate Pope Riddle,” Ballek said in the release on her appointment. “I look forward to working with the board, staff and volunteers as we discover opportunities for visitors of all ages from Connecticut, New England and beyond to make full use of the magnificent property Theodate left behind for many years to come.”
Prior to joining Lyme Art Association, Ballek held management positions at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum and the Connecticut River Museum. Her broad-based museum experience includes active involvement with collections and exhibitions, visitor services, educational programming for adults and children, public relations, graphic design, grants management, facilities, and fundraising campaigns and events. She has worked closely with volunteers throughout her career.
Ballek (shown above with the Monet at the Hill-Stead in a photo by Deborah Key Mundair) has been very involved in her community through leadership and other volunteer roles in organizations such as High Hopes Therapeutic Riding, Lyme Land Conservation Trust and Old Lyme’s Midsummer Festival.
Now she’s at the helm of the Hill-Stead and enjoying on a daily basis the moment captured in Degas’ “Jockeys,” when the riders in their colors are poised atop animals with fine pedigree and great bones at a moment of rest. The future awaits; the race to get there will be exciting, and beautiful.
For more on the Hill-Stead, and to plan a visit, see the museum’s website.