Article by Robin Pogregin, New York Times.
Agnes Gund didn’t want to part with Willem de Kooning’s “The Time of the Fire” or Arshile Gorky’s “Housatonic Falls.” She especially doesn’t like to give up pieces from her collection made by artists who are her friends, which, it seems, just about every artist happens to be.
But Ms. Gund said she felt she had to sell the two paintings and other works in recent years to be able to continue the charitable giving that has made her one of New York City’s most prominent philanthropists.
“I get income, but I don’t have a big swath of money to invest in things,” said Ms. Gund, whose father, George Gund II, made his fortune as an Ohio banker. Ms. Gund says she tends to give away “more money than I really have.” “I’ve had to sell a lot of art, which I’ve hated to do because I really love the art I have,” she said in a recent interview at her Midtown Manhattan office. “Some of the things I’ve sold, I’ve had for 40 years.
Ms. Gund could, of course, give less than the $6 million to $7 million a year she typically donates through the Agnes Gund Foundation. But that would require resisting the pull of causes that move her, like arts education, or getting better at saying no to the many requests that come from cultural institutions and women’s organizations — her two main areas of concentration.
Moreover, at age 76, Ms. Gund is not likely to change her ways. So instead, she finds herself running around to museum parties, gallery openings and high-powered dinner parties that keep her out about five nights a week — often attending multiple events in one evening.
On this particular night, for example, she planned to stop by the Marian Goodman Gallery to see the artist William Kentridge at the opening of his exhibition after attending the annual gala of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
The week before, she introduced Ellsworth Kelly at the World Monuments Fund Hadrian Award Gala. Last week, she presented the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art Medal to Claes Oldenburg. “I’m trying not to take on new things,” Ms. Gund said. “I’ve got to keep a lid on the honoree thing. Sonia tries to keep me on course.”
Sonia Lopez has been Ms. Gund’s philanthropic adviser since 2000. But given Ms. Gund’s apparently indefatigable energy and undisciplined generosity, there is only so much reining in Ms. Lopez can do.
“We have a ‘not anymore’ list,” Ms. Gund said, referring to her often-unsuccessful effort to phase out some recipients of her largess.
Her days are also packed. She is active on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art (where she is president emerita and chairwoman of the International Council); MoMA PS1 Contemporary Art Center (chairwoman); and Studio in a School (chairwoman), a nonprofit organization she founded in 1977 in response to budget cuts that virtually eliminated arts classes from New York City public schools.
“She just couldn’t believe that a city that had such rich art could have a school system that did not prepare students to enjoy the art and participate,” said Thomas Cahill, Studio’s president and chief executive. “She’s taken this from something that started in a handful of schools to reaching 170 schools in all five boroughs.”
Ms. Gund has also been on the boards of the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, where she continues to serve on the philanthropy committee. In 1997, Ms. Gund received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton.
In addition, she has been a member of the New York State Council on the Arts since 2012; and she was chairwoman of the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission of New York City. She serves on the boards of Chess-in-the-Schools, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies.
Ms. Gund regularly traipses around to artists’ studios, and she has been close to some of contemporary art’s brightest stars, both established and emerging. Among the more prominent friends whose names come up in casual conversation with Ms. Gund are Ellsworth (Kelly), Roy (Lichtenstein), Jasper (Johns) and Frank (Stella).
Her personal collection of 2,000 artworks — distributed between her New York apartment and her Connecticut country house — includes works by many of these artists, along with Gorky, Rauschenberg, Richard Serra and Kara Walker. Ms. Gund says she collects works of female artists and black artists. And if artists paint, draw and sculpt, she likes to have examples of all three types of their work.
“Artists always feel so honored to be in her collection,” said Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
When discussing Ms. Gund, people in the art world tend to gush. “She was the first person who helped us,” said the sculptor Mark di Suvero, who founded Socrates Sculpture Park. “She came in at a moment that allowed us to continue.”
Ms. Gund has a particularly long track record at MoMA — she joined its board in 1976 and served as its president from 1991 until 2002. She estimates that she has donated 250 works of art to the museum — “maybe more.”
“She’s given so much to the institution,” said Jerry I. Speyer, the board chairman. “She helped build the collection. She’s led the way in terms of contemporary art.”
Ms. Gund has also given art to other museums, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art — her childhood museum, where she used to go for drawing classes and lunch (“my favorite part”).
But she also gets fired up about women’s issues, like sex trafficking and abortion rights. “This is a woman who has, in her core, supported women getting ahead in such a range of issues, whether as artists or as leaders in women’s rights,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood.
Ms. Gund shows no sign of slowing her pace or cutting back her commitments. At a time when she could just be enjoying her 12 grandchildren, (she has been divorced twice and has four children from her first marriage), Ms. Gund seems perpetually on the move — attending board meetings, holding fund-raisers at her home or looking at art.
“She’s always working,” said Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS 1. “She makes her philanthropy a 24/7 full-time job and therefore makes herself an institution.”