Seed heiress' estate benefits theaters, museums, orgs

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A wealthy woman who gave millions anonymously to the arts over the decades has left a windfall bequest of $16 million to the arts in Connecticut. It’s believed to be the largest single gift to the arts in the state.

Louise Wheelock Willson, heiress to an Iowa seed producer, died quietly in May at the age of 74 in Simsbury without even a mention in the state’s largest newspaper. Her estate leaves $16 million to various Connecticut arts groups, including theaters, museums, dance, opera and symphonic companies and presenting organizations.

Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts will receive $3 million; Hartford Stage $1 million; and the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Torrington — the largest recipient — $5 million.

Willson, who regularly attended performances and arts events of all kinds, would privately subsidize performances and gave tickets away by the score. But she was an anonymous arts patron who guarded her giving from any publicity.

Even after a front-page story in the Hartford Courant revealed her largess, some arts groups hesitated to speak on the record about the series of seven-figure gifts.

The New Britain Museum of American Art will receive $2 million. Receiving $1 million each will be the Connecticut Opera Assn., Hartford Symphony Orchestra, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Warner Theater in Torrington and a trust for the Centennial Theater Festival in West Hartford.

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