Nicole Slaughter Graham is a freelance journalist and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Making a Difference Through Local Philanthropy
American artist Edward Hopper left a lasting legacy that influenced one real estate broker to become an arts education advocate.
December 9, 2019
For Richard Ellis, owner of Ellis Sotheby’s International Realty in Nyack, N.Y., giving back to the community is an important endeavor. Making the lives of children and families in need is central to his philanthropic efforts.
Ellis Sotheby’s International Realty was started in 1986 by Ellis’s father, William J. Ellis. He’s since taken over the business, applying his marketing and communications know-how to every facet of the brokerage. Creating a cohesive and supportive team that’s involved in the community has become a top priority as well. “I think any private business should find a way to give back,” Ellis says.
He and his team’s previous charitable contributions include raising money to build hurricane-resistant homes in Haiti and partnering with local nonprofits during the holidays to raise money and goods to ensure families in need have food and gifts.
In 2016, though, Ellis wanted to find a way to bring together his passion for helping children and his company culture. Sotheby’s International Realty is in the same family as Sotheby’s Auction House, so an appreciation for the arts is a big part of the brand’s identity. Luckily, Ellis didn’t have to go far to figure out how to combine his philanthropic efforts with the arts.
“Hopper House is literally our next-door neighbor. Four or five years ago, someone from Hopper called me over to give an assessment of their building, which was needed for a grant they were applying for,” he says.
The Edward Hopper House & Study Center is a nonprofit focused on two main goals: preserving the life and influence of Edward Hopper, renowned American artist, and providing arts education to children and adults. The nonprofit is housed in Hopper’s family home. Initially, it operated as a museum only, showcasing Hopper’s works. It’s since expanded to include programs that educate adults and children on Hopper and on art in general.
While Ellis was touring the property to provide an assessment, he struck up a conversation with Jennifer Patton, the nonprofit’s executive director, about the potential for an arts program for children in the area’s public schools. The two spoke about what that program might look like and how it could help expose school-aged children to the arts in a way they couldn’t access otherwise. Ellis knew he’d found his next philanthropic endeavor.
Not long after their initial conversation, Ellis and his brokerage team partnered with Edward Hopper House on an annual fundraising event to make their fledgling idea come to life. To date, the event has raised $147,000 for art programs for K-12 children in Rockland County’s public schools.
“We raised around $8,000 the first year,” Ellis says. “Each year, it’s grown and gotten better. The money provides arts education to about 1,000 kids per year.”
This past year, though, the fundraiser raised $47,000—nearly seven times that of the first year. Ellis attributes the increase to a new location and stronger relationships with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Edward Hopper’s original works, sketches, and drawings are split between Hopper House and the Whitney Museum. Adding the museum’s influence to the fundraising effort felt like a natural fit.
“We moved the venue of our event from Rockland County to the Four Seasons in downtown Manhattan,” Ellis explains. The strategic relocation brought the fundraiser closer to the Whitney Museum; its new home in New York City also expanded the donor base.
The event, which was held on Oct. 3, attracted around 100 guests, all of whom participated in what’s known as an “auction for a cause” by donating $100 to $5,000 on various items, including some of Hopper’s original artwork. The cause, of course, is arts education opportunities for school-aged children.
“The art program fills a gap for public school funding that’s been eliminated for arts education,” Ellis says.
Rockland County public schools, like many public schools across the country, have been on the receiving end of funding cuts. When education funding is reduced, arts, music, and extracurricular programs tend to suffer first since they are not considered “core” subjects.
Through the arts program provided by Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center, students learn about the artist and his work, and they also learn to hone their own craft. According to the organization’s website, “Students receive an interactive three-part lesson that introduces them to Edward Hopper, expands their artistic analysis skills, encourages the students’ artistic creativity.” They learn about different elements of art and then tour Hopper House to see Hopper’s artwork in person so they can apply what they’ve learned.
In 2018, for example, 50 students at South Orangetown Middle School worked on a project called “Memoirs in a Bottle.” Instructors used classroom time to explain the art of narrative writing to the students. The students took this newfound knowledge and applied it to Hopper’s paintings, creating unique backstories for some of them. They then applied the idea of narrative writing to their own lives. Finally, the students met with residents of Dowling Gardens, an independent residence for senior citizens, and listened to stories from the residents. The culminating project was a bottle that the each student designed based on inspiration from the Dowling Gardens residents’ stories.
The arts can provide a world of opportunity for kids outside drawing and painting, though, which was one of the reasons Ellis was so attracted to the opportunity of helping with funding.
“The best thing, in my opinion, is that it also helps work with kids on building self-esteem.” The program, he says, gives children who might not be into sports or who struggle with building a social life the opportunity to gain confidence and independence.
Since its inception in 2016, the program has expanded outside of Rockland County to include arts education for students in New Jersey, as well as Orange County and Bergen County in New York. Ellis looks forward to its continued success and has already planned the 2020 fundraiser for Oct. 15. It will be held in New York City.