Kay Merrill Hillman leaves rare modern art to BMA, Israel Museum Bequest: Baltimore-born collector, who made a name in New York art circles, leaves work by Miro and others to the museum.

July 30, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Kay Merrill Hillman, a Baltimore native who became a renowned New York art dealer and collector, died Sunday in Manhattan, bequeathing art works by Joan Miro, Albert Gleizes and Mark Tobey to the Baltimore Museum of Art. She also left art by Paul Cezanne, Jasper Johns, Paul Klee and others to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, according to family members. She was 99.

The BMA will receive works that include a print by Miro, three watercolors by Gleizes, an oil by Tobey, an untitled drawing by Burgoyne Diller, a painting and a lithograph by Auguste Herbin and a painting by Maryland artist Herman Maril, said Abel Merrill, Hillman's nephew and co-executor of her estate.

Works by artists including Cezanne, Johns, Klee, Diller, sculptor Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Jackson Pollock were bequeathed to the Israel Museum, he said. Under the terms of her will, one work of art will also go to the Guggenheim Museum in New York and to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., said Merrill. Further details were unavailable, however.

"She was very proud that she came from a modest background and taught herself about art and through hard work acquired this collection," said Merrill, an Annapolis attorney.

"She is from Baltimore originally and wanted to maintain some connections to Baltimore," he added. "She was also very proud of Jewish heritage and knew about the significant collection that the Israel Museum had and wanted part of her collection to go to it."

Administrators of the BMA declined to comment upon the gifts because the details of the will have not been finalized. "She has talked to us over the years about making a bequest, and she has also talked about making a bequest to the Israel Museum, and we really just don't know the final details," said Jay Fisher, the BMA's curator of prints, drawings and photographs.

Before her death, Hillman also donated works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Israel Museum and to the BMA. She gave about 20 works to the Baltimore institution, including an untitled photo-silk screen by Pollock, lithographs by Tobey, a painting by Maril and a pencil drawing by Arp, according to a BMA spokesperson.

Called gutsy, energetic and original by those who knew her, Hillman left her hometown for New York at about age 17 to build a stellar career as an art dealer and a life that included a deep friendship with Charmion von Wiegand and art lessons with Hans Hofmann.

The daughter of Russian immigrants who ran a Baltimore grocery store, Hillman worked as a film writer for the Baltimore News and as a publicist in New York for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At MGM, one of her first assignments was interviewing Greta Garbo. The movie star refused to get out of bed, so the movie company sent a woman to interview her.

Later Hillman was married and divorced twice, the first time to Manuel Seff, a playwright (who also came from Baltimore, but whom she met in New York) and the second to Harry Hillman, a paint manufacturer. And somewhere along the line, she discovered art and fell in love.

"She was traveling abroad alone long before other women were doing it," said Baltimorean Ann Merrill-Berman, her sister-in-law. "She never went to college, never studied art history, but she had a vast knowledge of modern art. She had guts. There's a Jewish word for it -- it's called chutzpah."

Hillman began buying art by the likes of Miro and Pollock at a time when those artists were not widely appreciated -- and when their work was affordable, said Fisher, who knew Hillman for more than two decades. Her first purchase was a Klee.

"She particularly liked drawings because I think she understood that drawings provided an insight into the artists' work," he said.

Gradually, Hillman built a successful career as an art dealer. She never opened a gallery, however, preferring instead to conduct business "privately" -- spotting excellent works of art in galleries or studios and matching collectors with artists. "She was marvelously well-connected and well-traveled. It is always remarkable to find someone who was interested in contemporary and modern art -- the art of her time," Fisher said.

"It is amazing to think about her coming from a poor Jewish family in Baltimore to really make her way -- her own life," he said. "Remember, all of this happened at a time before the BMA existed or the Walters existed -- so there wouldn't have been much to offer here. So she left and became one of the more important dealers at that time in New York and built a great collection in the process."

Hillman is survived by sisters-in-law Ann Merrill-Berman of Baltimore and Eva Merrill of San Antonio, Texas; seven nephews and a niece.

Graveside services will be held today at 10 a.m. at Beth Tfiloh Cemetery, 5800 Windsor Mill Road, Baltimore.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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