Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, presented the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters to Sigmund Ronell Balka, distinguished attorney and civic activist, at the College-Institute's Graduation Ceremonies of the 133rd academic year, held at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on April 30, 2008.
In presenting the doctoral degree citation to Sigmund Balka, Rabbi Ellenson said, "We recognize Sigmund Balka's distinguished contributions to the Jewish community and the larger society through his legal counsel and love for the arts. His wisdom has guided corporate, educational, and civic institutions, and his dedicated public service in federal and city administrations has strengthened the practice of finance and business. His intellect and vision have led the way to innovative expression through his art collections."
A graduate of the Central High School of Philadelphia, renowned for the celebrated artists and collectors who attended there, Sigmund Balka received his B.A. from Williams College in 1956 and began collecting art while a student at Harvard Law School, where he received his J.D. in 1959. His work for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations included serving as an Administrative Law Judge at the Interior Department, helping to set up the Chief Counsel's Office of the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration, and serving in the division of the Supreme Court and Appellate Litigation in the Labor Department. He has been associated with the New York State Power Authority, served as Vice-President – General Counsel of Brown Boveri Corporation (US), and has been with Krasdale Foods, Inc. in White Plains, NY, since 1980, where he currently serves as Vice President, Public and cultural Affairs and General Counsel. He is the Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Krasdale Galleries in White Plains and New York City, where he has curated over 100 exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in all media by artists from around the world and has transformed the company headquarters in Westchester and alternative exhibition space in Hunts Point in the Bronx into vibrant cultural venues.
Sigmund Balka has gifted the College-Institute with his encyclopedic collection of major European and American Jewish artists and Jewish themes in art during the 19th and 20th centuries. "We are enormously grateful to Sigmund Balka for entrusting his art collection to our institution," noted Rabbi Ellenson. "The Sigmund R. Balka Collection offers insight into the creativity of Jewish artists as they have encountered the challenges of modernity. Images of traditional study and worship, the Jewish home and neighborhood, and reflections of religious faith mingle with depictions of assimilation and acculturation, the struggle for human rights and social justice, and the tragedy of those who perished in the Holocaust. The full trajectory of Jewish fate and survival are captured among the Balka Collection's paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and Judaica."
Assembled over a period of five decades, the Balka Collection provides a panoramic impression of Jewish life and Jewish cultural production during a golden era of creativity. Over 200 works present the creativity of Jewish artists including Marc Chagall, Issachar Ryback, Josef Israëls, Abel Pann, Jacques Lipchitz, Ossip Zadkine, Herman Struck, Lesser Ury, Jules Pascin, Leon Golub, Chaim Gross, William Gropper, Joseph Hirsch, Jack Levine, Saul Raskin, Louis Lozowick, Raphael and Moses Soyer, Ben Shahn, William Sharp, Jakob Steinhardt, Leonard Baskin, Louise Nevelson, Saul Steinberg, Will Barnet, Isabel Bishop, Larry Rivers, Joyce Kozloff, and Max Ferguson, among many others, as well as works by Rembrandt, Max Beckmann, Lyonel Feininger, and Robert Motherwell.
The impulse to acquire and live with art, and then to ultimately share it with teaching institutions, has animated Balka's life. "Being a collector enhances my opportunity to capture my own little worlds that hopefully represent more than just things of interest to me but that have a significance that stems from the spring of the human spirit to be the force that helps to regenerate mankind," he said. 'In this past century of Holocaust and destruction it is my link with man's creative spirit, which in the end must prevail or we will extinguish ourselves."
The donated collection grows out of a strong sense of Jewish identity and heritage. At one point, Balka seriously considered entering the rabbinate and going to the College-Institute. "It was therefore natural for me to think about the College-Institute as the appropriate venue for this collection of Jewish art," he explains. "As a teaching institution, these works will be integrated into the educational experiences of faculty and students and engage the public audience. Furthermore, the College-Institute will be able to circulate these works to its other campuses and around the country to other academic institutions and centers of Jewish learning." Traveling exhibitions of treasures from the Balka Collection are currently being presented at university art galleries and Jewish museums throughout North America.
Balka has always collected art with the thought of sharing it. "Art is not of value if it is not presented so that people have the opportunity to interact with it. I don't think I am anything but a custodian during my lifetime. Art speaks for itself. And the more public the opportunity to have it speak for itself, the better society is, in general."