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Susan Morse Hilles

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HILLESSU   Susan Morse Hilles, art expert, art collector, board member and benefactor of many institutions, died in Boston, MA at age 96 on Tuesday (January 1, 2002). Susan Hilles received her arts education in Boston, MA, as a student at the art school of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1924-25 and Amy Sacker's School of Design from 1926-29. She said of that time: "I thought paintings and sculpture had always been in museums... that the best went automatically to museums either by selection of jury or gift from the artist. But, in the 50's, she began to assemble an outstanding collection of contemporary painting and sculpture which documented the artistic expression of a generation. "A new world opened up for me", she wrote, when she and her friend Dorothy Schweiker toured galleries in New York and went to a show of Seymour Lipton's sculpture in 1954. She soon formed associations with the New York art dealers, Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, and Sam Kootz. In 1954 and 1955, she began to acquire works by John Heliker, Josef Albers and Conrad Marca-Relli. She concentrated on the work of living artists, playing her hunches and "always hoping and thinking I've bought a winner". This was no small order considering the immense and varied output of contemporary artists of the 50's. According to Perry Rathbone, then director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, this pursuit required not only "an unbiased mind and a discriminating eye, but also personal conviction, courage, a sense of adventure, above all, perhaps, the daring and resilience of the gambler. Add to these traits a sympathetic concern for the living artist himself and the desire to encourage him by purchase, and we begin to see the composite impulse behind the activity of Mrs. Hilles. Over the following ten years, her collection grew to include works by Richard Anuszkiewicz, William Baziotes, Ilya Bolotowsky, Alexander Calder, John Chamberlain, Dorothy Dehner, Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, Alberto Giacometti, Julio Gonzalez, Hans Hofmann, Ellsworth Kelly, Gyorgy Kepes, Franz Kline, Ibram Lassaw, Seymour Lipton, Marisol Escobar, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, George Rickey, David Smith, Theodoros Stamos, Esteban Vicente, and Jack Youngerman. Her collection was exhibited in many venues, including the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, and Mount Holyoke College in 1964, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA in 1966, and the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London in 1967. Mrs. Hilles became a patron to many museums of art, especially the Yale Art Gallery, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard University, the National Gallery in Washington, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She donated much of her art and sculpture collection to these institutions during the 1960's and 1970's. Mrs. Hilles has also been a dedicated and generous supporter of education, music, medicine, and the arts, particularly at such institutions as Yale University, Mount Holyoke College, the Boston Athenaeum, the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Lacking a formal college education, she adopted Radcliffe College as her own, serving as trustee from 1962 until 1974. At Radcliffe, she donated the Morse Music Library in memory of her mother, and contributed to the building of several college buildings, including the Hilles Library, now part of the Harvard library system, named for her and her late husband. Her personal papers are deposited at the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College. Susan Hilles was born in Simsbury, on July 4, 1905. She was the daughter of the Rev. William Inglis Morse, as Episcopal priest from Paradise, Nova Scotia, and Susan Ensign Morse of Simsbury. She grew up in Lynn, MA and attended Ethel Walker's School in Simsbury. On June 14, 1930, she married Frederick Whiley Hilles, an 18th century scholar, and instructor in English at Yale University, who became bodman professor of English and chairman of the Yale English Department. The couple lived in New Haven and raised a family there. Mrs. Hilles had many social responsibilities as a Yale faculty wife. She was active in the Birth Control League, at a time when use of birth control was not legal in Connecticut. She was also affiliated with the Leila Day Nursery, the Neighborhood Music School, and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, where she became vice president. Mrs. Hilles received honorary degrees from the University of King's College, Canada, 1958; Wheaton College, 1967; and the Yale Medal, 1966. She has been on many boards: a member and treasurer of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, MOMA; member of the Collectors Committee of the National Gallery of Art; and trustee of the Whitney Museum, Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She was the first woman trustee of the Boston Athenaeum. She is survived by a daughter, Susan Bush of Cambridge, MA; and a son, Frederick W. Hilles of Brooklyn, NY; four grandsons; a granddaughter; and six great grandchildren. An event to celebrate her life will be held at a later date. Burial will be private.
Published in The Hartford Courant on Jan. 4, 2002
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