In art circles, she is known as the fairy godmother. She has never bought art by the artist’s name but by the artist’s work.
No one has had such a transformative effect in changing the perception of art as Agnes Gund. The 82-year-old art collector, patron and trustee of several art funds and museums used her position of influence to bring lesser known artists to the forefront and make art a normal course of life for millions of school children.
The making of Aggie
The second of six children and born in Cleveland, Agnes Gund accredits her interest in art to an arts history teacher while being a student of Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. She was 15 at the time. The teacher Sarah MacLennan didn’t just give her students the names of the artists or the date of the picture but she showed them how to look at art. MacLennan, recognizing Gund’s interest in art history, began sending her postcards from art museums and collections and encouraged her to visit the places.
“I had to see Titian’s Rape of Europa, which is indelible in my mind now because I got this postcard early from her and went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum quite often when I lived in Concord,“ Gund said in an interview to Art News.
Gund later graduated in History from Connecticut College for Women and received her master’s degree in art history from Harvard’s Fogg Museum.
Gund had lost her mother to Leukemia when she was 14 and her father in her late 20s in 1966. This was the time when as a young wife and mother, she had begun collecting art.
Her first significant purchase was Henry Moore’s sculpture Three-Way Piece No. 2: Archer (1964). This was the same time she joined the Painting and Sculpture Committee at MoMA in 1968. However, she later donated this work to the Cleveland Museum in 1970. Some of her other acquisitions included works by Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.
Once she was tempted to buy Ben Heller’s extraordinary Abstract Expressionist Collection, but her father prevented the purchase priced at $1.5 million. This interference made Gund realize that there was indeed no sense in buying someone else’s collection since it wouldn’t have her own character or taste. Thus began Gund’s untiring journey of a lifetime – seeking out works of fresh and underrepresented artists.
Fondly called “Aggie”, Gund likes to personally visit an artist’s studio and have a dialogue with them before deciding to buy their work. Yet, art collectors have found it difficult to define Gund’s style or taste. About choosing to collect mostly abstract and contemporary art, she once said, “I needed natural light for my life, that’s why I was stuck with contemporary art.”
Gund served as trustee at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York since 1976, was board president from 1991 to 2002 during which time has given more than 900 works from her personal art collection.
Studio In A School
Aggie founded Studio In A School in 1977. The school has so far provided visual art instruction to over one million students through its NYC school programs. The school has instructors who are professional artists and has partnered with over 800 schools and community-based organizations. Every year 100 professional artists engage with over 35,000 students to teach them the basics of visual arts. About 90% of these students come from low-income families. In 2017, Studio in a School received the National Arts Award for Arts Education from Americans for the Arts.
Aggie founded Art For Justice Fund
Gund was moved by watching Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and Ava DuVernay’s 13th greatly. She also read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. These three stories of injustice and inequality distressed Gund so much that she decided to channelize art towards bringing justice to the oppressed in the United States. She founded the Art For Justice Fund in 2017 by selling off Roy Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece in order to provide $100 million in seed funding for the fund. The Art For Justice Fund supports criminal justice reforms and channelizes the funds towards reducing mass incarcerations.
The way the fund works is remarkable. The organization funds advocates and artists who are working together to reform the American criminal justice system. According to its website, “ The Fund disrupts the very processes and policies that lead to high prison populations in the first place. In other words, we’re a “de-carceration” fund.”
The fund has partnerships with Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.
Her art collection
Aggie is an art collector at heart. She has a wide array of paintings, photographs, sculptures, prints and furniture apart from drawings. Her collection of modern and contemporary art from the 1940s onwards includes works of Richard Artschwager, John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Lee Bontecou, James Lee Byars, Vija Celmins, Eva Hesse, Teresita Fernandez, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, Cai Guo-Qiang, Glenn Ligon and David Remfry.
She became the inaugural recipient of the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award in 2020. But her true award, as she has always maintained, is the art she gets to explore.