Pat Nugent, the curator at the Lawrence Gallery of Rosemont College, is a hands-on gallerist who spends as much time as possible in the exhibit space, talking to visitors. It’s safe to say that few of them made a first impression as memorable as Sigmund Balka.
“He showed up at the gallery about two and a half years ago,” Nugent recalls. “He heard that we had good, meaningful shows. And he said that he would like to have an exhibit here.”
The conversation, while unusual for Nugent, was nothing out of the ordinary for Balka. Exposed to the transformative qualities of fine art at a young age by his mother, he has spent the better part of five decades filling his residence in the Forest Hills section of Queens, N.Y., with collections of everything from early American decorative stoneware to Inuit sculpture to artworks by alumni of Central High School (he is a member of the 198th Class, and recently donated a number of works to the school). Now, he wants to make sure that others get the chance to enjoy his collections, which feature much Jewish art, as much as he does.
That initial 2010 conversation has become a show that spans two campuses. The Eye of the Collector: The Jewish Vision of Sigmund R. Balka will run from Jan. 31 to March 18 at Lawrence Gallery as well as at the Gorevin Fine Arts Gallery at Cabrini College in Radnor.
All of the pieces in the show — 40 at Lawrence, 18 at Gorevin — have been chosen from a large collection of Jewish art that Balka donated 10 years ago to the museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. For Balka, who attended Congregation Adath Jeshurun while growing up in Mount Airy, the museum was a natural destination for his collection: “At one point, I seriously considered entering the rabbinate” and going to HUC in Cincinnati or New York, he says.
Instead, he went to Williams College (recipient of his collection of African-American art) and Harvard Law School (where Balka is currently negotiating a major donation of art), before going on to work for both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and ultimately becoming the general counsel and vice president of public and cultural affairs for New York-based Krasdale Foods.
While he chose not to devote himself to the rabbinate, Balka has nonetheless maintained a strong connection to Judaism in part by spending significant time, energy and money on collecting and displaying what amounts to a visual record of Jewish life through the centuries. “I believe in recognizing the shared generational heritage of the Jewish people,” he says, likening his efforts to “lighting a candle to preserve the world against the darkness of the Holocaust. This collection is for the preservation of the Jewish people; its visual power connects the viewers to their forefathers.”
Balka worked with Nugent, Gorevin curator Nick Jacques and HUC curator Laura Kruger to select the works for the exhibition, which spotlights luminaries like Marc Chagall, Max Beckman and Louise Nevelson, as well as lesser-known artists like Ruth Leaf, Will Barnet and Lawrence Nelson Wilbur.
The juxtaposition of museum staples next to unfamiliar names was Kruger’s idea. “I thought it was important for their audience,” she explains. “It is very reassuring to an audience to find artists they have heard of or that they recognize. Then they are able to look at the works by artists they have never heard of with a sense of welcome, a sense of comfort.”
For her part, Nugent has broken down the selection of paintings, photographs, drawings and prints for the exhibit into four main sections. “Social Justice” features works like Sigmund Abele’s “Seated Man,” a portrait of a worker clearly exhausted by his daily travails. “The New World” focuses on the immigrant experience at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, as evinced by pieces like Ruth Leaf’s “Orchard Street.” Works like Isaac Friedlander’s “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto” represents the section on the Holocaust. And “Philadelphia Artists” pays homage to the rich tradition of the city’s Jewish artists like Barnet, Julius Bloch and Jack Bookbinder.
That the Rosemont show is hung in salon style is partly in tribute to Albert Barnes, whose museum provided a young Balka with plenty of inspiration. Echoing Barnes’s philosophy of art appreciation, Balka says, “It gives me satisfaction to establish relationships in an orderly way among different producers of creative talent in the arena of their own making, and to then link their work to come up with something that is beyond the work of any one of them — but is the essence of all of them.”
In addition to selecting pieces that would fit the sections and provide a glimpse into how Balka assembled his collection, consideration had to be given to what would work best for audience members unfamiliar with many aspects of Jewish life.
“Because both institutions are Catholic and this is an exhibition fueled by Jewish art and artists,” Kruger says, “I have been careful to choose images that have been well served by both faiths.” For example, she says, there are few works that feature rabbis, because “they might be bewildering to an audience that doesn’t understand the importance of a rabbi.”
Balka says he felt it was important to “show some of the same philosophical and religious perspective — after all, both Catholic and Jewish groups were subject to discrimination in social and professional capacities.” For him, the show’s ecumenical approach is essential from both a current and historical perspective: “It gets back to George Washington’s promise to the Jews of Newport of the freedom to exercise their religion — a promise applicable to all religions.”
Donating massive collections that took decades to acquire and actively soliciting exhibition space to let more people appreciate and benefit from his efforts make Balka’s proclamation that his life is motivated primarily by the twin commandments of tzedakah and tikkun olam easy to understand. When asked if it must be tempting to keep some works to enjoy for himself in the privacy of his home, Balka doesn’t hesitate with his response. “If I just keep them in my house, they have no value. But I don’t feel like I’m parting with them — I’m sharing them. They tell a story, but they don’t need to tell a private story.”
There is no danger of Balka’s collection failing to reach an audience, says Kruger. In the decade since he donated it to HUC, Kruger estimates that she forms traveling exhibitions from it an average of four times a year.
IF YOU GO
The Eye of the Collector: The Jewish Vision
of Sigmund R. Balka
Jan. 31 to March 18
of Rosemont College
1400 Montgomery Ave.,
Opening reception: Jan. 31 at 4 p.m.
Gorevin Fine Arts Gallery
of Cabrini College
610 King of Prussia Rd., Radnor
Opening reception: Feb. 7 at 4 p.m.