During Carolyn Hill’s final days on the job at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, workers are busy replacing carpeting throughout the building’s hallways and lobbies. Hill, who will retire as director this week, smiles as she explains the six-year-old carpeting was already worn out. 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,” Frank 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. "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.
A musical beginningAfter growing up in Oklahoma City, Hill spent 30 years in New York City where she started as a music teacher at a prestigious girls’ school and then taught at the United Nations International School and conducted orchestras both in New York City and in Europe. After years of exposure to fine art at homes of some of New York City’s most influential families, Hill left teaching and opened an art gallery in the SoHo neighborhood. Throughout her years in New York City, Hill maintained ties to Oklahoma City, visiting her family every year. During those visits her parents showed off every new attraction. And when her father and brother died, it was time to return home to Oklahoma City and take care of her aging mother. Little did Hill know that she was about to take a failing, fractured art museum that was drawing a few hundred visitors a month, and turn it into a regional destination with prestigious exhibits drawing 130,000 people a year. Shortly after Hill’s return in 1993, a chance encounter with Oklahoma City philanthropists John and Eleanor Kirkpatrick led to her taking the reins of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art a year later. She saw confusion. She saw good and decent people "running in quicksand,” Hill said. "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?’”
Turning things aroundHill gave trustees and staff a choice: They could pull the plug or get tough about focusing on the museum’s core mission. "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,” Hill said. Trustees consolidated three locations into one. No debt would be incurred; the museum under Hill would operate under a strict budget. "We had so little money we could not afford a ream of paper,” Hill said. "We recycled letters and memos that came in to us. We printed and photocopied on the reverse 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 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. A successful $40 million funding drive ended with downtown’s old Centre Theater becoming the museum’s new home. "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,” Hill said.
Placed on the mapThe museum opened in 2002 to long lines of visitors. Hill pushed trustees to bring in exhibitions they couldn’t have dreamed of attracting before 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.”
at a glanceVisions of museum’s future Carolyn Hill is excited about the future of Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. She dreams of a downtown trolley system that constantly loops between the Arts District and Bricktown. She’s excited by the addition of SandRidge to downtown and the announcement of a 54-story Devon Energy tower. She believes the downtown museum will, and must, expand and continue to grow. "But it takes a lot of energy to dream,” Hill said. "You have to analyze it, you have to fall in love with it. And that takes a lot of energy and strength.” And energy and strength is what Hill insists she is lacking following a stroke in April. "You need something fresh,” Hill said. "And that’s why I’m excited about Oklahoma City and about Glen Gentele coming in as director. ... Here is a man coming in his prime. And he loves the arts. And he’s bringing experience. He’s not a briefcase conductor — someone we’d say would conduct a couple of great symphonies and move on. He’s someone who will dig in and be a part of the Oklahoma City community.”