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Ballek raises historic Hill-Stead Museum's profile

BY Jason York
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

3/31/2017
Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Steve Laschever

Susan Ballek

Executive Director & CEO


Hill-Stead Museum

Susan Ballek is an artist. She also is a realist.

When she was earning her bachelor's degree in fine arts at the University of Oregon, she knew she wasn't going to make a living right away as a sculptor. But while she was in school, she had a series of art-gallery internships and saw a path to a paying career in the arts.

It's a career choice that has paid off for her and the organizations she's helped run.

Ballek is currently executive director and CEO of the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, a National Historic Landmark whose profile — and financial health — she's helped raise since being named to her post in 2013.

Between 2015 and 2016, attendance at Hill-Stead — which houses Impressionist paintings from the likes of Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Edouard Manet — increased 10 percent, student program attendance and outreach increased 15 percent, and member visits and new membership sales increased significantly, helping boost overall membership by 10 percent.

Those double-digit gains helped Hill-Stead run a small budget surplus for the third straight year, reversing years of operating deficits that plagued the museum.

Ballek said surpluses — helped by a diverse revenue stream that includes facility rentals and special events — allow her to reinvest in staff and preservation and restoration efforts, putting the museum's board of governors and donors more at ease.

"I hope it makes things more ... comfortable without fundraising now that we're financially stable," Ballek said.

When the opportunity to become Hill-Stead's CEO arose, Ballek said she "took a gamble," by applying to and eventually taking the job. Previously, from 2009-2013, she served as executive director of the Lyme Art Association, the oldest art association in the United States. Before that, she held management positions at the Connecticut River Museum and Lyman Allyn Art Museum.

"It was a very big learning curve at first for me," Ballek said of taking over at Hill-Stead.

Bill Watson, who is president of Hill-Stead Museum's board of governors, said Ballek effectively balances general management responsibility and community outreach with a small staff.

"It's very difficult spreading the word about your nonprofit and she still has to be available to work through the day-to-day business," Watson said.

Ballek said the biggest challenge for Hill-Stead was creating the right mix of programming for the museum's art, architecture, grounds and nature, to draw in more visitors.

"If the public doesn't want to attend the lectures, visit the exhibits, it doesn't mean much," Ballek said.

She has focused on innovative programming and attracting interesting speakers like the country's first Latino Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, who last year was part of Hill-Stead's renowned Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, and the debut of a three-part classical music series.

The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2017, was in jeopardy of cancellation due to a lack of funding as recently as 2013. The festival has received $50,000 grants in each of the last two years from Connecticut Humanities, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Herrera's festival visit was the culmination of an effort to have more culture-themed performances and more audience-poet interaction.

"That was a very big deal," said Ballek of Herrera's visit. "It was not only reaching a diverse audience but it was sharing a diverse perspective with our current membership. That's an important thing that we need to get going."

A visit last summer by the owner of Highclere Castle, a filming location of popular PBS "Downton Abbey," resulted in a sold-out week of lectures and events and brought hundreds of new visitors to the museum and re-engaged previous visitors.

Ballek also worked to re-establish a close relationship with nearby Miss Porter's School, whose students were involved in sold-out holiday theatrical tours of Hill-Stead. Miss Porter's students connect with Hill-Stead for internships and special programs, and the school has an institutional membership as well.

Ballek said relationships with Avon Old Farms and The Ethel Walker School have also developed and there has also been more focus on educational outreach to Farmington Valley public schools plus schools in Hartford and East Hartford.

"There is a lot of good community interaction there and Susan is driving that," Watson said.

Ballek said she "inherited a strong volunteer corps" but is eager to build a junior volunteer corps among high school and college students, perhaps for internship credit. She sees that kind of student volunteer or internship effort as inspirational, at least it was to her.

"I think of everything I was able to learn about and have it inspire me and take this on as a career," Ballek said. "It's been everything and I wouldn't give it up for anything."

Ballek said she still envisions sculpting as a "retirement or pre-retirement career," but she is happy on the business end of the arts world right now.

"I do spend a lot of time in meetings, and at the computer, and doing paperwork," Ballek said. "I guess now looking back I didn't imagine myself being the director but it makes good sense now given I enjoy what I am doing."

What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

As a nonprofit leader, I hope to leave behind strong, healthy organizations that can fully serve their constituents in any financial climate, while inspiring donors and volunteers to offer their own unconditional support and feel proud of their gifts.

As an individual, I hope to leave a legacy of volunteerism. At a young age, my family instilled the importance of volunteering for causes that would inspire me to be a better person. Helping people with disabilities enjoy some of the simple things that I am fortunate enough to experience, such as riding and caring for horses, and the friendship and camaraderie that accompanies these activities, has and always will be a priority in my life.

What are your keys to maintaining business success?

Surrounding myself with the most talented co-workers possible has been a major factor in my own business success. Never be afraid to hire someone smarter than you. I believe in cultivating intelligent, creative, and driven individuals who truly enjoy what they do and can thrive in a team atmosphere where there is no room for big egos. Demonstrating the value of staff members, both as individuals and together as a team, goes a long way towards employee retention and harmony in the workplace, ultimately making it easier for me to concentrate on my own pieces of the puzzle.

What are your keys to maintaining work/life balance?

It's important that I do something every day that allows me to temporarily set aside the projects, deadlines and mental 'to-do' list associated with work and focus my complete attention elsewhere. Volunteering is one way for me to leave work behind. Another is competitive horseback riding. When I am training, my total concentration is required to enable a true partnership between horse and rider, and there is no room for worries about work. Horse sports, and sports in general, promote rational thinking, quick problem solving, and build self-confidence — all good tools in and out of the office.