This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
When Brenda Ballin led a tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whatever lucky group she had in tow was pretty much guaranteed a good show. Along with an extensive knowledge of the artworks, she contributed sharp opinions and a wicked sense of humor to the proceedings, making a walk through the American Wing or a “highlights of the museum” tour a much livelier excursion than a museum visitor might expect.
It was volunteer work, and she did it twice a week for some three decades, beginning in the 1970s. She was a natural fit for the volunteer guide program, having lived virtually her entire life on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, not far from the museum.
Ms. Ballin died on Jan. 28 at her home in Manhattan. She was 91. Her daughter Leslie Ballin said the cause was complications of Covid-19.
“Brenda guided tours at the Met for many years, epitomizing the learned and friendly, serious and exuberant energy that engaged visitors seeking knowledge and a good time,” Carrie Rebora Barratt, a former curator and deputy director at the museum, said by email. “I remember her ebullient laugh and brilliant smile, as infectious in our training meetings as in the galleries.”
Ms. Ballin had an insatiable curiosity and, once she learned whatever there was to learn about a subject that caught her interest, a passion for passing her knowledge along. One of her relatives put it this way: “You would simply say, ‘Hello, Brenda’ and she would answer, ‘I finally learned how Marcel Breuer got that rough texture in the concrete in the stairwell of the Whitney Museum.’ What texture? What stairwell? You had probably never noticed these things, but she made it sound like one of the great questions of the age.”
Brenda Natalie Phillips was born on May 7, 1929, in New York to Arthur and Frances (Brender) Phillips. Her father was vice president of the shirt maker Phillips-Jones (later Phillips-Van Heusen) and was in line to head the company, but he died of a heart attack in 1934.
After graduating from the Dalton School, Ms. Ballin studied at the Tobé-Coburn School for Fashion Careers in the early 1950s and then graduated from Finch Junior College. She worked for a time at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, but it was art that really caught her interest.
Another passion was bridge. Ms. Ballin played in tournaments at the Harmonie Club with her husband, Stanley Ballin, the co-owner of a textile plant whom she married in 1956. After his death in 1987 she played with Arthur Horwitz, her longtime companion. Mr. Horwitz died in 2011.
In addition to her daughter Leslie, she is survived by another daughter, Shakira Ballin, and two grandchildren.
The sense of humor that museum visitors experienced was also evident at home. In one beloved tale, Ms. Ballin was hosting a nephew and his two young boys. She challenged the boys to try to calculate which of two brands of toilet paper had more paper. There was only one way to know for sure: Let the rolls unfurl out her 14th-story window.
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