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September 8-11, 2022   Javits Center

Agnes Gund, American philanthropist, collector and President Emerita of MoMA, on her new initiative Art for Justice and her lifetime of philanthropy. — Interview by Audrey Rose Smith

"Collecting is an instinct deeply seated in the human psyche."

Photo Credit: Annie Leibovitz

For nearly 50 years you have set the pace, if not the record, for philanthropic efforts within the arts; from Studio in a School to Studio Institute and now the Art for Justice Fund. What strikes me about the Art for Justice Fund is the proposition it makes to other collectors –to rethink what the future of philanthropy looks like. According to you, what is the future of philanthropy?

The Future of Philanthropy is too big a subject for any one observer. I do believe that more and more individuals are supporting non-profit institutions and ideas. Many Americans may be giving to their favorite causes because it is so much easier to give – online, in the mail, in person, through an app, through banks! It’s also more apparent where the problems are that we face as a nation, and people really do care. My own philanthropy has always come from my personal concerns, my worries, my hopes. I think many people give that way. They want to reach out; they want to help. Giving to others is a great American habit!

Art for Justice poses both a challenge and an example to fellow collections, calling into consideration the act of collecting itself, and for what greater cause other than personal gain a collection might be used for. Is this something you feel is uniquely urgent to our world today?

Collecting is an instinct deeply seated in the human psyche, I think. Some of us collect art, but whether it’s stamps, or music, or chinaware or post cards, people do collect, and there is something precious about every collection. Some collections, of course, have meaning to the whole nation. Like most Americans, I am grateful to the people who value and protect their collections and, often, make gifts of them to museums, archives or foundations, adding them in that way to the public legacy.

Since the 1970s, Studio in a School has brought art into the classroom. What place, if at all, do you feel art has in criminal justice reform?

AG: We are thinking hard about this question. We know that artists are very active and imaginative in addressing the criminal justice system. Two works of art that influenced me were Michelle Alexander’s great book, The New Jim Crow, and Ava Duvernay’s searing film, 13TH. There are so many theater artists, poets and painters, public art makers, art and writing teachers and other cultural professionals working directly in prisons and in programs to help people leaving prison. Art is engaged at every level and in every way in this fight for justice.

"Art is engaged at every level and in every way in this fight for justice."

TAS: In response to the Trump administration, people, and in some cases corporations, seem more eager to take social issues into their own hands as a way to initiate action and awareness where the administration might not. Is the Art for Justice Fund a reaction to this, or are there more longstanding, personal reasons for choosing to shed light on criminal justice reform?

I am certainly glad that more and more Americans are becoming aware of the problems in our prisons and trying to help. This is true of people in government as well as other citizens. We are all volunteers in action, joining the prison reform professionals, and making a difference. My own commitment to the issue comes from a deep and personal place: I have six black grandchildren. It is hard not to worry about the situation of black people in our society. It is impossible if you have black children in your family.

Your support for existing institutions such as MoMA and MoMA PS 1 is immense and longstanding. As we are in the age of private museums, are there plans for you to open your own museum one day?

I respect very much the collectors who make their works available to the public through their own museums, or by making works available through existing public institutions. My own preference is to loan and give works to the museums that I know well and cherish for their professionalism and attentiveness to art and artists.

You were kind enough to open your house to Armory Show visitors this past March. What has been the most important influence in your collection over the decades, and how has your collection changed?

I have always bought contemporary work that I, quite simply, love. That instinctive response to a piece, the pleasure and understanding it gives me, is always my reason for adding it to the collection. I also believe that art should in some way be in the public domain, which is why I have tried to open my home when possible, and why all the major works in the collection are promised to museums or on long term loan. Living with art is a privilege and art should be seen and enjoyed. Over time, I have found more and more work that I cherish by women artists and artists of color. That has given me great pleasure and a special sense of mission.

The Art for Justice Fund is your latest philanthropic endeavor. Are the things you feel you would like to address in the future, or have not had a chance to influence yet?

At this time, I am fully occupied thinking about how best to realize the Art for Justice Fund! There is so much to learn and absorb, so much to admire, in the field of criminal justice reform. This Fund, added to my ongoing work in philanthropy, is more than enough to think about. I am very fortunate to have the professional staff at the Ford Foundation and my friend Darren Walker thinking about this with me.