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Picture-Perfect Choice for Art Museum Board

April 29, 2010 By:
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Connie Williams

 

Connie Williams is as familiar with the canvas of the state capitol as she is with the frameworks of beauty that is the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Now, the longtime former state representative and senator from the Main Line is a main draw in the art world: She has brought her whipsaw smarts and soulful style to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she was just elected chairwoman of the board of trustees.

Sunday on the Parkway with Connie? Actually, it was April 18 on the Main Line, in Gladwyne, where she was a keynote speaker at the groundbreaking for Beth David Reform Congregation's expansion.

She was on familiar turf at the event; Beth David is where she has been a longtime member and where one of her children -- her husband, Dr. Sankey V. Williams, is the Sol Katz Professor of Medicine at Penn's medical school -- had her Bat Mitzvah.

But then, breaking ground is nothing new for Williams, 65, the museum's first Jewish woman chief of trustees, whose communal service extends to numerous boards -- including the National Museum of American Jewish History -- and committees, as well as to her role as a vice president and director of the Hess Foundation; the Hess Corporation was founded by her late legendary father, Leon Hess.

Of late, Williams has been working on her new plans for the museum, expanding on the triumphs of former long-term chairman H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest and "continuing to implement his master plan, and getting back to making the museum more accessible, continuing its tradition of being a world-class museum."

The Barnard College grad, class of 1966, and 1980 Wharton School of Business alum, considers the insight she has into the boardrooms and backrooms of politics and art, and ponders which is more ... backbiting.

In the Eyes of the Beholder

"Well," says the former senator from the 17th District and representative from the 149th district, with a touch of tact and a knowing smile, "the art world is certainly one of beauty."

Beautiful choice for the top spot at the art museum, says Rabbi Jim Egolf, religious leader of Beth David. "Connie exemplifies the spirit of community service. Her being named to the art museum position" -- coming after four years of board membership -- "is in keeping with her ideas of tikkun olam."

It's a frame of reference she can trust in, growing up in New Jersey with an appreciation of the arts. "They were always going to concerts," she says of her parents.

In concert with her longtime interest and activity in Judaism, the current Haverford resident recalls those childhood days, too, when she and her grandmother -- the family "lived just two blocks from the [temple] in Perth Amboy" -- used to "sit together at services in the Orthodox shul."

Those long-ago days seem to cling to her, made even more meaningful with the death of her mother, Norma Wilentz Hess, on April 22.

And while she's excited to discuss enhancing the reach of the art museum in bringing the best and brightest to the public, she is especially interested in drawing attention to one particular exhibit next summer, in which a magical Russian Jewish artist will be displayed in all his shtetl grandeur.

That, says Williams of the museum's tribute to Marc Chagall, should be an arrestingly artistic experience, dedicated to an icon, according to art historian Michael J. Lewis, "whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk."

 

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