The Eye of the Collector: The Jewish Vision of Sigmund R. Balka

On View:

September 19, 2006 – January 30, 2007

Eye of the Collector Sigmund Balka thumbnailSigmund R. Balka has gifted the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with an encyclopedic survey of the major European and American Jewish artists and themes in Jewish art during the 19th and 20th centuries. Assembled over a period of five decades, Balka has sought out paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs by renowned and emerging artists that offer a panoramic impression of Jewish life and Jewish cultural production during a golden era of creativity.

The collection of over 200 works represents 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.

Perhaps to a greater extent than any other individual in recent years, Balka has amassed a body of work that reflects and records Jewish secular and religious experiences in Europe and America. One of the great strengths of his collection, excellent individual examples aside, is that one can read it as a chronological history of those experiences and as such it provides a wonderfully informative visual record of Jewish life over the last two centuries: the Jewish street and scenes of Jewish urban life, the practice of religious life, expressions of nostalgia for the Old World and acculturation in the New World, secular politics of change in which deracinated Jewish identity was channeled into modern political (read socialist) progress during the Depression, artistic responses to the Holocaust, and the emergence of Jewish women artists.

“Although the collection includes completely secular works as well as examples from non-Ashkenazic sources, its main strength lies in recapitulating the trajectory of European-American Jewish history and the ways artists dealt with their heritage. As such, it is instructive and informative and provides a visual complement to the many written histories of the events of the past two hundred years,” writes Matthew Baigell, Professor Emeritus of Art History, Rutgers University, in his essay for the collection catalogue.

“For Balka, the intent in creating a collection may not be to mold history but indeed that is the result of these efforts, for, without the commitment and focus of the individual collector, the juxtaposition of particular items would never occur. Therefore, a great collector creates a historical corridor for the viewer to travel, by combining artistic personalities that may never have met before, but, once placed side by side, create their own subtle connections,” states Laura Kruger, Curator of the HUC-JIR Museum.

The Balka Collection reflects Balka’s tremendous interest in the process of making art and then sharing it. “It appeals to me to see the creative play and an artist’s mental processes as he goes through the execution of a piece of art in the way of a graphic,” he explains. “Furthermore, 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. But the art speaks for itself. And the more public the opportunity to have it speak for itself, the better society is, in general. Collecting art, curating exhibitions, and serving on museum boards are for me as natural as breathing. 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.”

“By donating his collection to the College-Institute’s Museum in New York, Balka has demonstrated his strong commitment to the importance of Jewish material culture as a core component of the educational process within an academic setting. The Balka Collection at the College-Institute exemplifies the meaningful role that the private collector can have on the development of a university art museum as an essential educational resource for faculty, students, and the larger public,” said Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director of the HUC-JIR Museum.

Balka has been associated since 1980 with Krasdale Foods, White Plains, NY, 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. His collector’s eye has transformed the major grocery distributor into a prime alternative exhibition venue in the resurgent area of Hunts Point in the Bronx, a vibrant center for artists’ studios, art projects, and exhibit spaces, as well as at the company headquarters in White Plains.

Balka is a graduate of the Williams College class of 1956 and Harvard Law School. He currently serves as Vice President of his class at Williams College. The exhibit “Mergers and Acquisitions: The Gift of Sigmund R. Balka, Class of 1956 and the Permanent Collection” which contains selections from the promised gift to the college of over 200 works, is now on view until September 24, 2006, at the Williams College Museum.

Balka’s distinguished professional career has encompassed service in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, as well as with the New York State Power Authority and as Vice-President — General Counsel of Brown Boveri Corporation (US); positions of leadership in the Greater New York Metropolitan Food Council, American Corporate Counsel Association and Foundation, American Bar Association Committee of Corporate General Counsel, and the Metropolitan Corporate Counsel; and service on the Art Law and General Counsel Committees of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He is a Fellow of the American and New York Bar Foundations, a member of the New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania Bars, and admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

Balka’s commitment to linking art with the larger community extends to his having served as chair of the Fellows Council as well as on the Visiting Committee of the Williams College Museum of Art, chairing the Exhibitions and Acquisitions Committee of the Board of Trustees of the Queens Museum of Art, and serving on the Advisory Council for Visual Arts at Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Center for Innovative Print and Paper. He also has served on the Board of Directors of the Bronx Council on the Arts, chaired the Hunts Point Sculpture Park Task Force, and currently serves as President of the Print Connoisseurs Society of New York, Chair of the Jewish Repertory Theater, and on the Boards of The Judaica Museum, the Bronx Council on the Arts Longwood Center, and the Museum of Ceramics of New York.

This exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, with essays by Matthew Baigell, Laura Kruger, and Jean Bloch Rosensaft; artist biographies by Bryony Roberts; research by Marilyn Symmes; and 196 color illustrations.

Read the Catalogue:

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