‘Solving Problems Through Art’: Agnes Gund on Diversity in the Art World and the Future of MoMA

The renowned philanthropist spoke to artnet News's Andrew Goldstein about how she brings art and money together for progressive causes.

The art patron Agnes Gund. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.
The art patron Agnes Gund. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

How central to the heartbeat of New York City’s art community is Agnes Gund? If you don’t already know, you could reflect on the question while sitting in the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby at the Museum of Modern Art, where she is the president emerita. Or you could ask Jim Coddington, the museum’s Agnes Gund Chief Conservator. She is also the current board chair at MoMA PS1. A decade ago, in light of her extraordinary patronage, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of the Arts; today, the nonprofit Independent Curators International gives out its own annual Agnes Gund Award (or “Aggie”) to recognize “an established curator for their outstanding contribution to the world of art.”

Her status as a beloved fixture of the city’s art world has even translated into some pop-culture cachet: in 2016, she was tapped as a model for the Pirelli calendar, alongside Patti Smith, Serena Williams, and Tavi Gevinson.

That Gund, who turns 80 next year, is still racking up these kinds of accolades after decades of devoted patronage is a testament to her indefatigable drive to make her city a better, more progressive place. The daughter of an Ohio banking magnate, she has said that she was pushed to philanthropy by her keen sense of guilt that she was given more than others by birth—an altruistic drive that saw her on the boards of some 20 charitable and cultural organization as of a few years ago.

In addition to helping museums like MoMA and the Met keep their doors open, she has also been devoted to increasing the diversity of the people who walk through those doors, by funding avenues for art education that reach beyond the halls of private schools to less privileged students who don’t have the same elite cultural access.

One of her greatest sources of pride is Studio in a School, the nonprofit program she initiated in 1977 to bring art lessons, taught by real working artists, to New York City’s public schools. In the four decades since then, Studio in a School has reached nearly one million children in New York alone, with 90 percent of its activities benefiting students from lower-income families.

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the program, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein visited Gund in her splendidly appointed apartment on the Upper East Side to discuss the philosophy behind Studio in a School and her views on contemporary art philanthropy. Works by Jasper Johns, Calder, and Rothko adorn her walls, though noticeably not Roy Lichtenstein’s famous Masterpiece (1962), which she recently sold for a reported $150 million to fund her continued giving.

As we sat down to talk, Gund took a moment to introduce her two dogs, Bronzino (“It’s not the fish, it’s the artist,” she explained) and his older companion, Giotto.

It must be nice to have a Giotto in your collection.

[Laughs] He’s the only Giotto I have. I have a funny story about Giotto—actually, it’s about Duccio. When I was on the board of the Getty and my friend Bill Griswold was taking the place of Debbie Gribbon as director, he said we had to cut back on the things we were acquiring. So I thought, who are the hardest-to-get artists, the most unique things that they could acquire, and that they shouldn’t pass up if they get the chance. So I said, “What if it was a Duccio?” It turned out to be at the exact same time that the Duccio that eventually went to the Met had been offered to the Getty. Now, I didn’t know anything about it, but they had been in line to get it. And they didn’t.

I know a little bit about the Renaissance, but I remember at the time the Met acquisition was announced that Duccio was an unfamiliar name for me. My framework began with Giotto.

Well, he was pre-Giotto. Duccio was the one who actually changed the whole of art history by being the first one after the Byzantine artists—who did everything very flat, including the halo, where the nimbus was not in perspective but was instead behind the head—to really deal with figures in space, having tactile value, being round and not just flat personages. And Duccio comes right before Giotto in the first room of the Uffizi. I can tell you almost everything that’s in the rooms of the Uffizi, because they’re among my very favorite kinds of things.

Do you have any Renaissance art in your collection?

I really was interested in collecting Old Masters because that’s what I studied, and because I always felt that drawings give you the most that you can get from an artist. But I couldn’t live in a dark house, and your house has to be completely dark if you’re going to collect Old Master drawings. You shouldn’t even have your hall lights on during the day, and you have to switch out the artworks on the walls all the time. But I get SAD [seasonal affective disorder], so I couldn’t live that way. So that’s why I began to collect contemporary art, although I do have an Annibale Carracci. I bought that and I really like it—it’s a sweet head of an angel. But it’s the one thing I have. I really would have loved to have bought Rembrandt drawings, but I never was able to do that.

You are lucky to have a neighbor across the street who happens to be one of the foremost collectors of Old Master drawings in the world, Leon Black.

Well, yeah, talk about a collection. Whew! It’s really incredible. And he also has the things that my ex-husband used to collect, Shang bronzes. My husband had a very nice collection, but nothing like what Leon has. Nobody in the world has what Leon has. He has everything—and he has what I like, especially the Seurat drawings. I wanted one of those and I never got one at the time, and now it’s beyond my reach.

You are renowned as an extraordinary collector and art patron, but I’d also like to talk about one of your other signal achievements, which is the Studio in a School program. It has now been 40 years since you founded Studio in a School in 1977, and over those decades your continuous energetic support has brought art lessons—taught by real working artists—to nearly one million children in New York City schools. How did this become such an important mission for you?

During the 1970s, I read an article in the New York Times about how the city’s public schools were cutting back on all the art programs, especially in the elementary schools, because of the economic downturn. I didn’t know it at the time, but there had been a huge boom in school art funding in the 1960s, where teachers had built kilns and even a photography studio for the children, and that was one of the things that caused the city to cut the funding, because the equipment was so expensive and they thought it was a frill—that it wasn’t academic, and that it didn’t really do anything for children. They also cut athletics at the same time.

At the time, my friend Pat Hewitt—who is still on the board of Studio in a School—ran something called Joint Foundation Support, which was a pass-through foundation for small grants. But I wanted to do something that was not just a little bit here and a little bit there, but could really have an impact on school art programs. Once we made up our minds how to do it, we had no trouble doing it. We first selected three schools to help, one in the Bronx and two in Manhattan, and then the second year we increased it to five schools. Since there were no art teachers, we weren’t competing with the union or any other organization, so we could choose whichever artists we wanted to come in regardless of the requirements they’d need if they were hired through the school.

At the time, Pat was having children and I was living in Concord, Massachusetts, so it was difficult for us to get out to the schools ourselves, so we hired Tom Cahill as the director. Really, we’ve only gotten it this far because of the leadership of Tom Cahill. Today, Tom is in charge of taking the program to other schools around the country and also our museum internship program, which I started based on a program the Getty had to bring in kids to learn about museums over the summer. Through the Studio Institute, Tom has now brought this internship program to Philly, Cleveland, Boston, and Providence, and it’s very successful because the kids get real working experience and as a result a more diverse group of people have been ending up working in the arts, in museums.

When did you start this program?

I started this in the late 1980s, but I didn’t want it to be publicly known, so I got a friend of ours to sign the checks for it and Tom didn’t talk about it to anybody. But then we transferred it a few years ago when I ran out of money, which I quite often do—this is why I have to sell so much art, because I promise things that I can’t really pay for. Now it’s been taken over by Studio in a School, and it also has a program for high school and college kids that Bloomberg provides for us to a really great degree.

What inspired you to take up the cause of increasing diversity in art museums?

Well, for one thing, I have six grandchildren who are black. But, besides that, I’ve always felt this was important. When I first became president of MoMA, we used to have these wonderful Christmas parties where everyone would dress up as different pieces of art, and all of the staff would come to these parties—the preparators, the security guards, the housekeepers, everybody. They were really fun, and I was leaving one of them once and a preparator came up to me and said, “Can’t you do something as president to let people like me have better opportunities in the museums?”

He meant to let minorities have positions in the curatorial ranks, in marketing, in the financial division. Now we have so much diversity across all of the departments, and the internship programs really helped to make that happen, because it gave people the experience they needed to be able to get these jobs.

We’ve also instituted other programs in New York schools to help young artists of different backgrounds, like our Saturday program for kids to get assistance with their portfolios. We also have P.S. Art, which is run by the Met, where a group of us go and judge student art submissions and the work gets hung on the walls of the museums’s education center. The winners get scholarships for continued art education.

More than just providing funding, you seem to have the rare ability to convince city officials that giving art classes to public school children is beneficial. How do you do it?

Are they convinced? We can’t seem to make it clear to people that these classes don’t only help children by teaching them a new subject, they also help to get these children talking, interacting, thinking creatively. One of the things I used to do is to take people to the schools throughout the city to see the impact that these programs have on the schools and the children, because that’s when you become convinced.

The teachers will say, “We have a full class today, because the kids never miss the days that we have Studio in a School.” Because on other days the parents may keep them at home because they don’t speak English and they need them for translation. But the kids love Studio in a School because they know that they’ll have the chance to be creative even if they’re not the most academically successful child—there’s no right and wrong answers in art, so they aren’t told that their rabbit is wrong because it doesn’t look like Dürer’s rabbit. It can be a green rabbit with a yellow neck.

And it’s amazing—the kids are not critical of one another, and they end up being able to talk about difficult subjects using their art, things they wouldn’t talk about otherwise. That’s why in the elementary schools we also have a teacher there with the artist the whole time, to pick up on what the children are saying.

It’s heartbreaking to hear this, because we live at a time when the president and the party in power are pledging to destroy these kinds of classes by cutting back funding for schools and for the National Endowment for the Arts, which underwrites so many after-school programs.

Well, we’re being led by a man with a limited vocabulary. There’s still some hope. However—there a few Republicans who have caught on to the things that the NEA can accomplish, and that when the NEA provides funds for schools it encourages others to step in and give more funds as well. This happens even at MoMA, which never really got much from the NEA, because if the museum gets funding for a certain show it must be a certain level and so other people want to be associated with the show. So, hopefully it won’t all go under, and people will see the value in it.

We’ve also living through a moment when inequality across the lines of both class and race threatens to rip the United States asunder. Your programs through Studio in a School aim to lessen inequality when it comes to art. Do you worry that’s a quixotic effort?

When I was growing up, we lived in the shadow of segregation. I went to an all-girls school, and nobody in the school was Jewish or black. I’m so glad that people are coming to terms with the fact that we don’t live in a monolithic society. And in New York we live in a really mixed society. In one of our schools in Queens the kids speak 130 languages and dialects. Where do you have that in the world other than New York?

Young people today accept people of different backgrounds, they accept lesbians and gay people, and they accept families like mine that are half black and half white. That really wasn’t the case in my age group, and you still see these divisions in the world I inhabit. For instance, I live in an apartment building where black people don’t live. The other day we had 30 people over for a program I work with, 25 of whom were black, and someone told me they’d never seen so many black people in this apartment building in their lives. They see my grandkids coming into the house with their friends, and I think it’s still a shock to people.

At the same time, the art world is a funny place. It’s rare to find an artist or curator who doesn’t hold deeply progressive values—at least in public—and yet the art establishment still lags so far behind other industries when it comes to diversity. The media, fashion, technology, sports, and pretty much every other cultural arena is much farther ahead than the art world when it comes to having people of color in positions of power up and down the ladder. With the exception of the Studio Museum in Harlem—which is a great institution, but a niche one—there are very few museums that have black directors, for instance.

There are so few women as well. People have really been pushing for the Met to get a woman director, which I’m all for, even though other people say it’s never going to happen.

Well the president of the Met was a woman, so why not have a female director?

Yes, Emily Rafferty, and she was a terrific president—they never should have let her go. But still, I talked to someone the other day who was on the committee that selected Tom Campbell, and she used “he” all the time when she talked about who the next director should be. There’s still a thing where people believe a man of a certain background is best for the job.

That’s why I think it’s so important that people like [Equal Justice Initiative founder] Bryan Stevenson and [New Jim Crow author] Michelle Alexander are stressing the idea that if we really want to change the stereotype that black people are inferior, we have to really cope with what slavery did, and what it meant. We have to deal with it like the way they’re doing it in Germany, where they have memorials to all the different historical events—like, they’ll have stars on the street to mark where a Jew was taken to a camp.

Because it’s really incredible. There’s a person I know who is a black artist who went to Yale for graduate school, and his brother had asked him, “Why do you want to be an artist? With all your smarts and your good looks, why don’t you go into finance and do something that will make you a lot of money?” So he told his brother, “Let me take you to some galleries and show you what artists do.” So they went to see galleries in Chelsea, and along the way the police stopped them and said, “We’ve been watching you go into these galleries and we see what you’re doing—you’ve been taking art!” They made them put their hands against the wall. It was unbelievable. The artist even made a painting about it.

That’s infuriating. It makes me wonder: When it comes to progress in bringing more diversity into the art establishment, you have significant leverage as the president emerita of MoMA and the chair of the board at MoMA PS1. In 2019, the director of MoMA, Glenn Lowry, is going to turn 65, the traditional year of retirement at the museum. Do you hope, or expect, the next director to have a different profile?

I think it is an opportunity. I think it would be great if it could be the case. It’s important to choose whoever is best for the job, and I think there are women capable now of doing this and doing it well. The Philadelphia Museum of Art had the most incredible director in Anne d’Harnoncourt [who held the post from 1982 until her death in 2008]. And there isn’t just one Anne d’Harnoncourt—there’s got to be others who can do the superb job as well.

What about Kathy Halbreich?

Kathy is another great example, but Kathy doesn’t want another job as big as the Walker or the Modern, where she’s been a terrific help to Glenn and all the trustees and staff. But I think there are people out there. The Walker has a woman, the Hirshhorn has a woman, there’s a wonderful woman out West at the Hammer, Annie Philbin, and she’s done a terrific job. I’m not saying that Annie should be head of the Met, but she could certainly be head of the Modern. She would do a great job, because look at what she’s done with the Hammer. The Hammer was nothing, a sleepy little museum, and now it’s one of the strongest pillars of the West Coast museum community.

There is another hugely significant matter facing MoMA. You were one of the guiding forces behind Yoshio Taniguchi’s wholesale 2004 renovation of MoMA’s building. Now Jean Nouvel’s towering expansion to that building, containing three new floors of MoMA galleries, is going up next door. How involved are you with that project?

I haven’t been involved at all. I was involved before, but I don’t have the kind of money to give to this project that would allow me to be involved now. I am, however, trying to raise funds for PS1—we badly need to have an endowment for exhibitions because they cost a lot and we overrun our budget a lot of times. We’ve been trying to raise as much as $15 million, though we haven’t gotten to it yet. Compared to the cost for the museum, it’s an incredibly small amount.

The people who have been leading the museum renovation, Jerry Speyer and Marie-Josée Kravis, have done a wonderful job in terms of raising money. But they’re going to have to spend so much more when it comes to these added parts of the building and renovations, because they mean we need to have much larger security and lighting costs. The Met gets help with these costs because it’s a CIG [part of New York City’s Cultural Institutions Group], but we don’t at MoMA.

I’m much more in favor of trying to do more with loans and collaborations with other museums rather than building more. It costs so much to keep it up.

Finally, you have been involved with art philanthropy over many decades. Looking into the future, you expect to see the amount of money that is given to philanthropic art causes increasing? Or is it trending a different direction?

In terms of philanthropy going up, I think it’s going to be a decisive issue that museums cannot keep being expanded, because they do come to be too money-eating, and this doesn’t help anybody. Anyway, in the digital era, people feel like they can engage with art on websites and through all these other portals, and that will spread art to a wider audience than growing a museum’s square footage.

Also, look at what Crystal Bridges has done. Alice Walton is all in when it comes to loaning artworks that can go across the country to different museums. I think that will be the trend. People just can’t keep giving money to building projects. But I think there will be other ways of giving. I actually believe that this Trump phenomenon, which has affected many of us, is going to accelerate the use of art for philanthropy, because people are realizing that art is a vehicle for showing opposition—just look at the signs in the women’s marches. People are beginning to feel that one of the best ways that they can represent themselves in the community is through art.

So I think the philanthropy will go up in that more people will see artists as part of a fabric of solving problems, or of addressing a problem. Before this interview, you asked me about what I was doing selling a painting [Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece], and it was because I’m really interested in getting money through that method that can be used for solving problems through art. I think that now artists are really going to come to the fore when it comes to political and social causes. I think art can make a difference. I think art can help.


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