The next time a student or staff member at Central High School feels the need for artistic inspiration on campus, they can do a lot better than look in a coffee table tome or click on a site; they can simply walk to the school’s recently refurbished auditorium and study any of the almost three dozen artworks donated and debuted in September to Central by 198th Class alumnus Sigmund Balka.
Balka, a Germantown native and current vice president of public and cultural affairs and executive general counsel for Krasdale Foods in New York, has made a second career out of philanthropic endeavors for the Queens Museum of Art, Jewish Repertory Theater of New York and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, among others.
So his gift of 20th century works by the likes of Judith Nelson, Hall Groat and Mel Edwards to his alma mater is in keeping with his involvement at the school, including his title as the principal benefactor of Central’s art department.
He dismisses both the title and the scope of his latest gift with good-natured brusqueness. “I’ve given them financial support to do things like buy equipment,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I wanted to give the opportunity to the students to see works of the 20th century. I wanted them to have the benefit of modern art at their side, and I wanted to give them some role models.” Instead of simply hearing about and seeing reproductions, he said, now “they can live with the art that they read about in their textbooks. They can identify with the art and identify their opportunities within the art world.”
According to B. Walsh, Central’s chair of the art department, that is exactly what has happened since the works were hung.
Walsh said that, while Central has been the recipient of numerous works of art from alumni, the students are “impressed the most by these works in particular, because they’re more contemporary. It catches their eye. They say that it’s more alive. They ask me who’s that artist, what’s that technique. It starts a lot of conversation.” One clear favorite: a work by Pop artist Clayton Pond. “It’s a screen print of a roll of toilet paper,” he said. “They love the color, the pattern — they see that art doesn’t need to be about serious, stuffy subjects.”