Arts Patrons, Impresarios, and Philanthropists in Saskatchewan

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Part 5: Carol Hill, Arts Patron

By Dave Margoshes

You might say Carol Hill’s journey as a patron of the arts was directed by a higher power – there certainly were angels involved.

You might even say it was a marriage made in Heaven.

And if you don’t believe in actual angels, think about some of the angels – rosy-cheeked cherubs and other varieties – depicted in great Christian art over the centuries. For Carol Hill, taking her first look at some of that art – paintings contained in an exhibit of artwork from the Vatican on public display in Los Angeles – it was love at first sight.

“Sometimes,” Carol Hill philosophizes, “life takes hold of you by the back of the neck and says ‘this way, please.’”

She remembers well that “miserable, cold rainy night” in Los Angeles a decade ago when she and her husband Paul, scion of the rich and powerful Hill clan of Regina (his father was the legendary Fred Hill, who added Hillsdale to the Regina map) attended the opening of Angels From the Vatican: The Invisible Made Visible, making its debut as part of an American tour that would feature several stops – but none in Canada.

Carol Hill wasn’t in a particularly receptive mood. Aside from the chilly weather, her birthday had just passed, her youngest child had just left for college “and there was a big vacuum in my life.” Then she stepped into the gallery of the Armand Hammer Museum of Art. “One painting in particular caught me so unawares” and “brought tears to my eyes”– for the record, it was Guido Reni's “St. Matthew and the Angels,” a 17th-century depiction of an old apostle and a winged youth. “I was overwhelmed by the beauty. I was dumbfounded. I had never seen art like this.”

Later that evening, at a dinner in the museum, Hill found herself sitting between two cardinals. “What would we have to do to bring the show to Canada?” she wondered.

“Impossible,” one of them replied.

Her national pride pinched, she persisted. “Eminence, What would it take?”

“My dear,” the cardinal said, “a tremendous amount of letter writing and a trip to Rome to plead your case.’”

But he also told her that “if I was serious, he’d stick his neck out and help. In effect, he coached me through it.

“I remember thinking, well, anything is possible,” Hill says with a small laugh.

She had “no idea how slowly the wheels of the Vatican turn – they barely turn,” but she plunged in. She lobbied, wrote letters, sought advice from a Hill family friend, former prime minister John Turner, whose firm does legal work for the Toronto archdiocese, prodded then-Heritage Minister Sheila Copps and even Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Turner has described Hill as “a force of nature” who would be unlikely to be rebuffed. “She has faith, pizzazz and she's fun.”

On a trip to the Vatican, she was first turned down, then was invited to dinner by Edmund Cardinal Szoka, governor of Vatican City. She recalls a full moon shining through a big round window of his residence, and this prince of the church taking her hand – and surprising her. “You must have been saying your prayers,” he told her, “because only prayer would melt my heart. Now the rest is up to you.”

With the Vatican’s approval in hand, the rest was mere child’s play to a woman like Carol Hill, and the Toronto show, which opened about a year later at the Art Gallery of Ontario, was a tremendous success. It also marked her debut as a high-profile patron of the arts, at least on the national and international stage – the Hills still maintain a fairly low profile in the Saskatchewan arts community, partly because, friends say, they aren’t around all that much. Even before her involvement in bringing the Vatican show to Canada, the Hill family had been involved in an international club that raises funds for church art restoration, known as Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. Part of the deal was her pledge to get a Canadian chapter launched. True to her word, that chapter was born the evening of the Canadian show’s opening. There are now some 125 Canadian members, making it the third largest chapter in the world. Hill has just finished a stint as its honorary chair.

There are chapters of the Patrons around the world. They’re “made up of people who believe art is not a hobby, but our humanity,” Hill says. Dues are steep – $500 a year – and the chapter has an annual fund-raising event, usually involving a dinner and a speaker from Rome. The first project of the Canadian chapter was to raise some $75,000 to restore a Raphael tapestry in the Vatican. They’re now working on a restoration of the Room of the Liberal Arts in the Vatican’s Borgia Apartments – the room to which Lucretia Borgia’s lover was rumoured to have climbed a trellis to be with the infamous daughter of an infamous pope. “There’s wonderful art there,” Hill says. “It’s thrilling to be part of it.”

Although the Hills are generous with their money, they prefer to do things behind the scenes. One very public display was the 2007 $10-million gift to establish the Paul J. Hill Business School at the University of Regina. More typical perhaps are below-the-radar gestures, like the time Paul lent his private jet to bring a cancer-stricken Regina man to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to see a football game involving his son, a member of the legendary Packers team, a gesture that became public only when a sports writer got wind of it.

Paul Hill, writing in the Regina Leader Post in 2003, gave a cogent rationale for his family’s philanthropy. “Regina has offered our family a unique opportunity to make a contribution beyond what may have been the case had we lived somewhere else,” he wrote. “We have been able to partake in the development of a vision for the growth of the city. We feel honoured to have been able to join with other great visionaries and talented people to be able to now recognize one of the most attractive cities of our size anywhere in North America.”

Although both the Hills cherish their privacy, Carol’s involvement with the Angels art show was far from her first public involvement in the arts, having served on the board of Regina’s Globe Theatre in the mid-‘70s. “It was wonderful,” she recalls. “I felt privileged and grateful to go behind the scenes and get to know the artists and their incredible passion to create. I was in awe of them.”

Later, when the Hills lived in Winnipeg, she became “enchanted” with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet company and joined its board – she’s still on an advisory committee. She and her husband are also involved with National Gallery of Canada, serving as “distinguished patrons” of its foundation.

And she’s been on an advisory board for the Banff Centre, which holds a special thrall for her. The school of the arts in the Rockies is “a mystical well where people can come and clear a space for themselves to create art,” she enthuses.

The interview for this story took place, ironically, not in Regina, but in the Hills’ Calgary condo, where they spend a lot of their time these days, for business and family reasons. They have five children and eight grandchildren, several of them in Calgary. Their condo, with a magnificent view of the city’s river valley and the foothills and mountains beyond, is filled with art, much of it from Saskatchewan, from the Nouveau Gallery and its predecessor, the Susan Whitney Gallery.

Hill, who was Miss Saskatchewan Roughrider in 1963 and remains passionate about the team, is still slim and attractive in her 60s, elegantly dressed and with impeccably cut brown hair – she gives off an aura that evokes the memory of Jackie Kennedy.

She grew up on a farm near Lang, south of Regina, and then in the capital, when her father, Walter Erb, became minister of health in Tommy Douglas’s 1956 CCF cabinet. In Regina, she attended Luther College high school, where a classmate was Degen Lindner, daughter of the famous painter Ernst Lindner and later a well known painter in her own right. She was an English major at the University of Saskatchewan and later at Georgetown University. “I loved literature, and had an especial fondness for American playwrights, like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.”

Hill is an enthusiastic writer herself, and was involved in the ‘80s with the Regina Women’s Guide, a paper on women’s issues that flourished for a few years. “It was a voice for all women, and a lot of fun,” she says. She continues to write – publishing a few freelance pieces and dabbling in creative writing. But beyond that, Hill’s interest in the arts is primarily as a spectator – she likes attending the Toronto Film Festival, for example.

Recent government cutbacks on arts spending, and attacks on the arts by the Conservatives during the recent federal election, are “outrageous,” Hill says. “I’m deeply saddened by it. (Those politicians) are missing the mark.”

What does she get out of her support of the arts?

“What I come up with is a sense of awe and wonder – and humility – all in a sort of crucible.” Art, she says, “is the thread that weaves it all together. Because of the arts, I still believe there is hope in the world.

“All of the arts give critical form to our passions. Through art is the way we care for the soul of the community.”

Her husband, Paul, she notes, “is a businessman dedicated to building things and making things happen. Which is wonderful. But what balances life for me is the other dimension, the arts.”

Part 5 of a 5 part series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance.

© For permission to reprint this article please contact the SAA.