From early on, Alex and Rita Hillman shared a passion for art. A successful publisher of popular magazines, Alex confided to friends that he spent most of his time “trying to make enough money to buy pictures.” After the Second World War, he was appointed a government administrator for the Marshall Plan, and on trips to Europe he and Rita discovered and acquired a number of masterworks, by artists including Matisse, Braque, Miró, Manet, Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. In the words of longtime friend and neighbor Stephen Lash, chairman emeritus of Christie’s Americas, these were purchases made “with judgment, discernment and an instinct for quality, and without ever addressing the investment potential of the works they loved.”
Karl Katz, whose friendship with Alex and Rita began in 1961 when he was the chief curator of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, says of the Hillman collection:
The art—thoughtful, exuberant, strict, imaginative, generous—is very much like the people who bought it. The art in their comfortable apartment was never there to impress. It was there precisely because the Hillmans wanted to live with these works of art, and Rita and Alex were very happy to let their guests enjoy them, just as they did the conversation, the companionship, and the food.
During the 1960s, Alex and Rita supplied works from their collection for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Summer Loan Exhibitions. They commissioned public sculptures for Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School.
In 1966, they established the Hillman Family Foundation to manage the collection. After Alex died, in 1968, Rita became president of the Foundation, which she renamed the Alex Hillman Family Foundation in her husband’s memory. For the next three decades, she walked the 29 blocks from her Park Avenue apartment to her Rockefeller Center office, no matter the weather.
In the 1970s, the Foundation lent many of the collection’s important pieces to smaller museums and university galleries in regional centers that otherwise had limited access to such works. Between 1979 and 1985, these paintings, known as the Hillman Collection, toured 10 different states in the South, Southwest and Midwest. The Foundation also established the Hillman Periodical Fund at the Museum of Modern Art, which was used to acquire several canonical works. As the century drew to a close, several of the Hillmans’ most important pieces were regularly installed at the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where millions of visitors had the opportunity to enjoy them.
Under Rita’s leadership, the foundation expanded its reach. In 1974, Rita became a founding trustee of the International Center of Photography. She went on to become chairman of the board, honorary chairman, and unofficial ambassador-at-large. She also served as vice chairman of the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was a member of its executive committee for more than three decades. (Of her tenure at BAM, Karl Katz once noted, “Though she claims that much of what she sees and hears there is not necessarily her cup of tea, she feels it is exceedingly important to support the arts and to encourage a diversity of creative people.”)
In 1989, Rita emerged from a serious illness with a deepened appreciation for the role of nurses. (Rita had valued nursing since her first contact with nurses, as a child, during her father’s long illness.) In a prescient move that would chart a new course for the Foundation, she decided to sell the Picasso masterpiece “Mother and Child” at auction, and with the proceeds she established the first Hillman Scholarship Program for Nursing in 1990. Seeking to address a city- and country-wide nursing shortage, the program was piloted at the University of Pennsylvania, where Scholar nurses received financial and other support for their education, in return for working two years at a New York City hospital. Similar projects at the New York University School of Nursing, the Phillips Beth Israel School of Nursing, and Lenox Hill Hospital soon followed.
Rita oversaw the expansion of these programs to include externships and post-graduate clinical mentoring. They also featured recruiting efforts to attract pre-college students as well as those seeking a mid-career change. In addition, Rita wanted Hillman Scholars to remain connected throughout their professional lives, and so in 1996 she funded the creation of the Hillman Alumni Nursing Network, which “works to maintain and improve patient care through networking, educational opportunities, and media support.”
A recipient of the prestigious American Journal of Nursing’s Beatrice Renfield Caring for the Caregiver Award, Rita watched with pride as Hillman Scholars gained a reputation throughout New York for clinical excellence. She was a devoted presence at Scholar events and delighted in meeting young “Hillmans,” whom she regarded as part of her extended family. When thanked by grateful students for her support, she would humbly reply, “No, thank you. For all that you do and all that you will do. “
By the time of her death, in 2007 at the age of 95, nearly 1,500 nurses had completed or enhanced their education through Hillman scholarships and clinical mentoring programs. Rita’s commitment to nursing continues to make a difference not only in the lives of the nurses and institutions she funded but to the patients of New York City who benefit from the expert care of her beloved Hillman nurses.
After Rita’s death, one of the first acts of the Board of Directors was to rename the organization the Rita & Alex Hillman Foundation, to honor the two passionate, generous, and indefatigable people who made its existence possible.