To hear Sharon Litwin’s interview on WWNO, click here.
Lila Heymann, 42, grew up in Lafayette, graduating from Episcopal School of Acadiana. Like many of this state’s young, she left to go to college but returned to New Orleans for graduate school.
“After that, I started working at the New Orleans Museum of Art education program, a very enjoyable experience”, she recalls.
If you had known Lila when she was in her twenties, you would have said she was the perfect right-brain person to work as a curator, first at NOMA and then at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington D.C. After that, it was up to New York where, it seems, her brain took a decidedly left hand turn.
“I was in the museum world for about ten years,” Lila recalls. “But then I started to feel the need to have a more personal connection to the people I was working with. So I started doing volunteer work — teaching literacy and also volunteering at Rikers Island.”
The experience at New York’s huge Rikers Island prison system and the encouragement of friends and colleagues resulted in Lila deciding to get a social work degree. With her left brain’s logic and critical thinking leading her on, she opted to specialize in services for the homeless. Upon graduation, she landed a job in Grand Central Station.
“It was a drop in center,” Lila explains. “So my task there was to separate the people who were chronically mentally ill from the general population, for the purposes of safety. I spent just about five years doing psycho-social evaluations all day long, five days a week. It was the greatest interaction you could ever have with humanity, because you met everyone.”
Then in 2005, Lila moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to get married and found work as a part-time independent psychiatric evaluator. Now, as the mother of a 4-year old son, it remains the perfect job, allowing her and her family to travel often to New Orleans to visit her Covington-based equestrienne sister, Joan. In the years since Katrina, Lila and her family have bought a home in New Orleans and hope soon to resettle permanently back in the Crescent City.
“My sister and I run a family charitable giving foundation that, since 2005, has been much more intensively focused on New Orleans,” Lila says. “We’ve been a pretty big presence in Lafayette Parish, where we grew up, but we made a concerted effort in 2005 to center more of our programs and our fundraising efforts on New Orleans.”
So what could be a better project for both sides of Lila’s brain than for the Heymann Foundation to open an art gallery on Julia Street. But not just a regular commercial gallery; this one, The Foundation Gallery, has a very different philosophy.
“The way that we operate is our foundation curates exhibitions, and all of our proceeds go to charitable giving organizations,” Lila explains. “The response to this has just been amazing. People have really embraced the idea. They love coming to the openings.”
Every two months, the Foundation Gallery has an opening of the works of many of the artists Lila knows from her museum days, along with others from around the world. She likes to showcase emerging artists as well, particularly those from New Orleans and Louisiana. All proceeds from works sold during the two-month exhibition are donated to the Heymann Foundation’s charity of choice at that time.
But what do the artists get from this project?
“The way our relationship with the artists is structured is that generally the artist will get fifty percent from the proceeds of the sale, with the other 50 percent, or our half, going to the charitable organization,” Lila says. “What we have tried to do, operating with this philosophy, is to see that the ones who benefit the most from the sales are the artists and the beneficiary organizations. Thus far, it has been viewed as a win-win for artists.”
Carrying forward the Heymann Foundation’s total commitment to this community, all of Tthe gallery’s administrative costs are borne by Lila Heymann’s real estate business. All in all, a truly unusual and generous gift to this community.