The story you’re reading this weekend in the Sunday Oklahoman is just a glimpse at the career of Carolyn Hill. What follows is my full story:
BY STEVE LACKMEYER
Hill, who retires as director this week, smiles as she explains the six-year-old carpeting was worn out by the thousands of visitors who have flocked to exhibits such as this year’s Roman Art from the Louve.
Frank Hill, the museum’s trustees chairman (and no relation to Carolyn Hill), isn’t surprised by the last minute flurry of activity.
“She wants that museum to be as beautiful as the first day it opened,” Hill said. “She’s very demanding, but she’s fair.”
Frank Hill is part of a chorus of admirers who credit the retiring director with turning a fractured, anemic community arts organization into a regional attraction that drew 70,000 just for the Roman art exhibition. And her admirers know that Carolyn Hill is loathe to accept such praise.
“There are a lot of people who deserve substantial credit — the Kirkpatrick family, we couldn’t have done it without them, the Meade family, Chuck Nelson, the Payne family, George Records, the Inasmuch Foundation … But she brought a lot of those people into the museum and developed those relationships. Without her, I really don’t think the museum would be what it is today,” Frank Hill said.
As civic leaders attempt to woo back Oklahomans who have become success stories elsewhere, they might look at Carolyn Hill as the quintessential “boomeranger.”
Hill grew up in Oklahoma City, attending Culbertson grade school, Webster Junior High and the old
Central High School.She loved music and art — but she also took an interest in science, even winning the E.K. Gaylord Science Award in the ninth grade. At the University of Oklahoma she majored in zoology with the intent to enter the pre-med program. But it was there she was exposed to music majors practicing in her dormitory.
“I saw them writing harmony, practicing dictation,” Hill said. “Doing those things intrigued me.”
It didn’t take long for Hill to switch her focus to music and fine arts. Two weeks after obtaining her master’s degree, Hill headed off to an uncertain future in New York City. Her first tasks: finding a job, a place to live, seeing the Steinway Piano shop on West 57th and listening to a performance at the Met.
Hill continued her studies in New York City and then started teaching music at the Chapin School, where the city’s elite sent their daughters for an education that often led to admissions to Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
Music instruction continued at home, and Hill was spending time in homes adorned with priceless works of art. And like many teachers at Chapin, Hill also was being invited by students’ parents to openings at the Met and New York City’s most exclusive art exhibitions.
“I was like a dry sponge to water,” Hill said. “I couldn’t get enough.”
Hill’s career continued upward with a stint teaching at the United Nations International School. She loved the diversity — but the work days were brutal. A typical day started with rehersals at 7 a.m. and ended with gigs as a choir minister and symphony conductor at night.
“I kept four brief cases in the car,” Hill said. “And they were packed for whichever job I was going to.”
In the early 1980s Hill embarked on an entirely new adventure and opened her own art gallery in the SoHo section of
New York City. Hill figured she could rely on the international artists she had met during her teaching years, pair up art showings with live classical music performances and also set her own hours.
“I was meeting accomplished artists from all over the world who were in my gallery,” Hill said. And I thrived in that environment.”
ABOVE: Rex Reed was one of the celebrity visitors at Carolyn Hill’s SoHo art gallery. Below: the gallery
But home was beckoning. Little did Hill know that she was about to take a failing, fractured art museum that was drawing a few hundred visitors a month, at best, and turn it into a regional destination with prestigious exhibits drawing 130,000 people a year.
Throughout her 30 years in New York City, Carolyn Hill maintained ties to home visiting Oklahoma City for the holidays once a year and through letters from her mother, Flora.Her parents were proud of their city, and on each visit they showed off the newest development — a new Oklahoma City Boat Club at Lake Hefner, the Omniplex (now Science Museum Oklahoma), Waterford, Remington Park.
Hill’s mother sent her numerous clippings from local news reports the Oklahoma City Times and The Oklahoman about the transformation of downtown. It was the death of Hill’s father and brother that convinced her to return home in 1993 to take care of her mother.
“I knew what I was leaving,” Hill said. “I didn’t know what I was coming to outside my mother and sister-in-law. When I got back here, I was lost. I was used to a much more rapid-paced life.”
Hill continued to work with artists she had represented in SoHo and even gave two showings at an empty gallery she rented at the Omniplex. And it was there she met John and Eleanor Kirkpatrick, who were founding supporters of the Omniplex and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
A friendship developed and Hill was offered the director’s job at the struggling museum. No promises were made; Hill was advised the museum had been dropped from the city’s $370 million Metropolitan Area Projects program. The museum was split into two homes and was running short on cash.
Hill took over in September 1994 and immediately packed her days visiting with every single museum trustee.
“I wanted to try to get my arms around what was going on here, what was the story,” Hill said. “And based on that, I made a report on what the story was.”
Hill told trustees she didn’t hear a single voice, she only heard noise. She saw confusion. She saw good and decent people “running in quicksand.”
“In the quest of just surviving the oil bust and inadequate funds, most everybody thought that money was the paramount issue,” Hill said. “It was a big issue. But I didn’t see it as the issue. To me the issue was ‘who is this museum for and why does it exist? What is its function? What is the mission?’”
Hill gave trustees and staff a choice: They could either “pull the plug” or “cease and desist and put our mission first and never, never again refer to any excuse,” she said.
“We needed to take command of our own destiny, tighten our belt and do whatever it takes,” Hill said. “We needed to turn this facility in service of the community. That’s what it was here for. The trustees deserved that. They love this place — they’ve been keeping it afloat.”
Trustees stood by Hill as she began a painful trimming of the budget. They closed the Buttram Mansion and downtown Artsplace locations and consolidated operations at the aging State Fair Park location. Trustees scoured financial records and created a reliable set of books. No debt would be incurred; the museum under Hill would operate under a strict budget. The museum was to be operated as a business and the community was its customer.
“We had so little money we could not afford a ream of paper,” Hill said. “We recycled letters and memos that came into us. We printed and photocopied on the reversed side. I’d get memos from staff and I had to look at both sides to be sure of what I was looking at.”
Hill believed that with trustees and staff at her side, sacrificing and rebuilding the museum’s reputation, they could earn some much needed credibility.
“It’s a business and we’ve got to run it like a business,” Hill said. “It cannot be a country club or a private club. It’s either in the service of the community or it is not. It’s a business and something was wrong with the product if the business is not showing evidence of its ability to serve and inspire.”
Carolyn Hill’s demand that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art be run like a business might have been painful, but it also gained the institution some much needed credibility.
During the planning in the early 1990s for the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects program, the museum had been cut from the list of final projects.
Years afterward, then-City Manager Don Bown confirmed the museum was deemed too fractious, too disorganized in those pre-Carolyn Hill years.
Hill stuck to her vows against deficits and debt and insisted on independent audits. Expenses dropped, finances stabilized and support grew for a new permanent home for the museum.
Hill saw downtown as a natural fit. She wanted the museum to be at the center of the city and liked the idea of pairing it with the Civic Center Music Hall and Stage Center and creating an arts district.
The old, dilapidated Centre Theater was deemed a perfect spot. Hill negotiated a purchase of the property from the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority just as it was preparing for the building’s demolition. Armed with a major grant for construction and endowment from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the museum’s trustees approved Hill’s plan to turn the downtown site into the museum’s new home.
The $40 million museum opened in 2002 with a theater for independent films, an upscale cafe and exhibit space that dwarfed the old digs. Long lines formed to get the first glimpse of the new Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Hill kept pushing trustees to go one step further, to bring in exhibitions they couldn’t have dreamed of attracting prior to her hiring.
“She has a vision on maximizing revenues,” Frank Hill said. “She has stepped up and inspired our board to go through with very special plans for exhibitions…. she inspired us to buy the Chihuly opening exhibit…. and we put ourselves on the map with all this.”
Looking back, Carolyn Hill admits her 30 years in New York City might have been preparatory for taking the reins at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
But she’s quick to add, “New York was a very selfish experience.”
”“It was a place that gave me an incredible quality of life,” Hill said. “But it was very self indulgent in that there was so much joy coming in for me, but what was I doing for New York City and what did New York City need me to do? New York was overrun with lots of Carolyn Hills.”
TOMORROW: THE POWER OF DREAMING AND THE FUTURE ACCORDING TO CAROLYN HILL