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Sue Hess, who led a state arts advocacy group, dies

Sue Hess was called “the grandmother of arts advocacy.”
Sue Hess was called “the grandmother of arts advocacy.” (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Sue Hess, who created a successful statewide advocacy group, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, died of cancer Wednesday at Roland Park Place. She was 87.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Callow Avenue, she was the daughter of Philip Levin, a furniture store owner, and his wife, Rose. She attended School 49, the Robert E. Lee School, and was a 1949 graduate of Western High School.

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“As a young woman my mother enjoyed going to films, and she had a beautiful singing voice,” said her son, John Hess, a Pikesville resident. “She really wanted to pursue an acting career in New York, but her mother told her, ‘Nice Jewish girls don’t do that.’ So she went to college.”

She earned an English degree at Goucher College, where she was also active in dramatics. She was senior class president.

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“Even at that age she mixed the arts and politics,” said her son.

She was briefly a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily and met her future husband, John Hess, whose family owned the Schleisner women’s store at Howard and Saratoga streets. When the family decided to open an Eastern Shore division, later called Hess Apparel, she and her husband settled in Salisbury.

Mrs. Hess remained a lifelong theater devotee and performed in and directed musicals, including “Hello, Dolly,” “Sound of Music,” “Mame” and “Guys and Dolls” at Salisbury Community Theater. She was an early supporter and board member of Center Stage.

Mrs. Hess joined her husband on international apparel buying trips. She also did radio advertising spots and was the voice of Hess Apparel.

She and her husband moved to a home in Ocean City on 87th Street, and on its kitchen table she began organizing a grassroots arts organization.

Her son said, “My mother wanted state arts money to go all the counties in the state.”

Her organization, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, became successful. A 1992 Sun article called her “the grandmother of arts advocacy.”

The article described Mrs. Hess: “In an office the size of a concession stand, arts lobbyist Sue Hess delivers a bravura telephone performance: She coaxes, cautions and commiserates with legislators, arts leaders, CEOs, union people.”

Mrs. Hess was recalled as a forceful presence.

“Sue Hess was Maryland’s leading advocate for the arts and state funding for the arts,” said attorney George Johnston, former chair of Maryland Citizens for the Arts. “She joined attorney and later federal judge Francis Murgnahan" to found the advocacy group.

Her group wanted to see that state funds supported arts groups other than the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1916 by the City of Baltimore.

"Part of what made Sue so effective, in addition to her genuinely passionate beliefs about the value of the arts, was her remarkable personality. She was bright and analytical, always probing MCA’s advocacy efforts, literally until her final board meeting,” said Mr. Johnston. “But what really set her apart was her warmth, her capacity to engage others, and her empathy. So many people felt she connected with them in a deep way and that her caring had enriched their lives. Not surprisingly, she was a person with legions of friends.”

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Mr. Johnston also said, "Under Sue’s leadership MCA grew to be a recognized and effective presence in Annapolis. Annually MCA sponsored Maryland Arts Day, which drew hundreds of arts advocates across the state to Annapolis, where each legislative delegation would be lobbied for state funding for the arts through the Maryland State Arts Council.

“Through her leadership literally generations of arts advocates were identified and mentored,” Mr. Johnston said..

Mr. Johnston said that she was able to persuade powerful legislative leaders, including Mike Miller, Mike Busch, Howard “Pete” Rawlings and Norm Conway, to champion the arts statewide.

“Her lobbying prowess was such that when a business group asked Aris Melisseratos, then secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development under Governor Ehrlich, how to better its lobbying efforts, he directed them to MCA as a model,” said Mr. Johnston.

Mr. Johnston also said she conceived the Governor’s Arts Awards, which honored excellence in the arts across the state.

“These gala events were attended by many and served to highlight artists, prominent and otherwise, across the state,” said Mr. Johnston.

Nicholas Cohen, who heads Maryland Citizens for the Arts, said, “When it came time for funding, she never played favorites. She had a welcoming personality. You were immediately her best friend. She brought you along in a nice, matriarchal way.”

J. Wynn “Judy” Rousuck, a WYPR theater critic, said, “One summer we went to the Shaw Festival in Canada. ... We had tickets for a number of shows, [but were late for one]. Sue parked the car in the middle of town, looked at me and said, ‘Run!’ Nothing stopped Sue Hess when it came to pursuing the arts.”

J. Stanley Heuisler, former Baltimore Magazine editor, said, "Sue Hess was nothing if not a willful force of nature. She and I used to sing “Guys and Dolls” songs after dinner, and she was excellent on ‘Adelaide’s Lament.’ "

After retiring as the Maryland Citizens for the Arts executive director, she remained as a trustee. The group created a Sue Hess Advocacy Award, given annually to recognize important arts advocacy efforts.

When she retired in as president of MCA in 1998, Gov. Parris Glendening gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award.

In addition to her son, survivors include another son, Rick Hess of Pacific Palisades, California; a daughter, Pam Hess Gibson of Needham, Massachusetts; a brother, Joel Levin of Pikesville; and eight grandchildren. Her husband of 39 years died in 1994.

A memorial has been created in her name at the Maryland Citizens for the Arts.

The family said a private graveside service will be held. A life celebration will be held in the future.

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