Richard Hillstrom at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts,1993. Star Tribune photo by Rita Reed

The Rev. Richard Hillstrom, a Lutheran minister who parlayed a modest salary, a discerning eye and a passion for American art into a museum-quality collection, died at his home in Edina on Dec. 16. His health had been failing in recent weeks, and his death was announced by Gary Langness, a longtime friend. He was 99.

Though Hillstrom devoted his long professional career to the ministry, it was as an art collector that he made his most enduring mark on the culture of Minnesota. His most important legacy is likely to be the collection of about 250 American modernist paintings and drawings that he donated to his namesake Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, his alma mater.

Over the years he also gave the museum an endowment totaling $1.5 million as of 2012. Asked how a minister could amass so much money, he credited smart investing through Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent Financial) at a time when the stock market was strong, according to the Gustavus Quarterly.

He was also founding curator of the Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent Financial) art collection which features Old Master prints and drawings on Christian themes by Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt  and others.

Starting in the 1940s when Hillstrom was ministering to a parish in the hard-scrabble steel milling town of Gary, Indiana, he would visit the Art Institute of Chicago on his days off and then poke through the city's galleries and antique shops where he was drawn to paintings by Swedish American artists. His budget was extremely modest, and he later recalled the guilt he felt at having bought, for $5 each, original lithographs by Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, three of the country's leading regionalists. Each of those prints would be worth thousands now but, at the time, his $15 purchase felt like a fortune on a minister's salary.

Over his 70 year career, Hillstrom amassed a refined and important collection of paintings by early 20th century American modernists Maurice Prendergast, Guy Pene du Bois, Everett Shinn, John Twachtman, Willard Metcalf and Reginald Marsh plus prints and drawings by John Sloan, Grant Wood, George Luks and Edward Hopper among others.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts staged a show of his collection in 1993, and he gave pieces of art to the Institute as well as to the Weisman Art Museum, the Minnesota Historical Society, the American Swedish Institute and the Minnesota Museum of American Art among other venues.

"I admired Rick greatly, both for his deep, self-taught knowledge of art and for his supportive friendship," said Donald Myers, director of the Hillstrom Museum at Gustavus." He was eager to make it possible for others to be affected by art in the way that he was. And he was always happy to guide and encourage friends in their interest in collecting art and in supporting art institutions.  

"He was a great mentor and friend to me, always ready with encouragement and advice but never insistent on having things done just his way," Myers continued.  "He enjoyed his friends and loved to be able to joke with and tease them and have the same kind of good-natured ribbing come his way."

Born in Dassel, Minn, a town of 800 about 50 miles west of the Twin Cities, Hillstrom and his four brothers were first generation Americans, their parents Alma and Martin Hillstrom having immigrated from Sweden to the United States. Following his 1938 graduation from Gustavus Adolphus College, he studied theology and was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1942. 

After serving the Gary parish for five years during World War II, he was an assistant minister at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis for five years. He spent the bulk of his career, 30 years, as chaplain at St. Paul's Bethesda Lutheran Medical Center from which he retired in 1982. In retirement he went on to establish the Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent) art collection which has toured exhibitions to communities and churches throughout the Midwest.

At the time of the 1993 Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibit, his friend Edward Lindell, a senior vice president of Lutheran Brotherhood, said that Hillstrom's generosity was characteristic of a man who was by temperament  "a great mixture of art sophistication and Lutheran piety."

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