Decades before it became on trend for museums to collect work by women and artists of color, long sidelined from the canon of art history, Agnes Gund took a genuine interest in meeting little-known artists on studio visits and supporting their work in myriad ways.
“I was aware of the many artists that have been excluded and didn’t ever think of them as being something I shouldn’t buy,” the 82-year-old philanthropist, collector, and all-around fairy godmother of the art world recently told ARTnews. Gund has had a transformative impact on the dozens of institutions she’s been affiliated with over the years—first and foremost the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where she’s served as a trustee since 1976, was board president from 1991 to 2002, and given or promised more than 900 works from her personal collection of modern and contemporary art, and as founder of Studio in a School that has brought arts education back to the public schools since 1977.
“There are countless examples of artists whose work I tried to give to museums and they didn’t initially want them,” Gund said. Her offer of Fred Wilson’s large chandelier To Die Upon A Kiss (2011), for example, was turned down by MoMA, only to change its tune a couple years ago. “They said now they really thought it was a great piece.”
“We joke all the time that the curator is in the position of coming back with her tail between her legs,” said Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA who organized its 2018 exhibition “Studio Visit: Selected Gifts from Agnes Gund,” which featured work by Terry Adkins, Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Nick Cave, Julie Mehretu, Catherine Opie, and Martin Puryear, among many others.
“We’ve caught up with Aggie to some degree, although it would never in a way be possible [without her],” Temkin said. “She was ahead of her time as far back as the 1970s. She had those convictions and in her own home, obviously, it didn’t require courage perhaps in the same way that it did require courage to advocate at MoMA for a number of artists who—if not for her advocacy—probably the curators would not have been looking at closely.” Recently, Gund’s persistent efforts on behalf of Ouattara Watts paid off with his mixed-media piece Vertigo #2 (2011), a gift of the collector, now on view in the museum’s contemporary collection galleries.
Postcards to a Collector
Gund grew up in the leafy suburbs of Cleveland, the second of six children close in age. Her father, a banker and one-time stuntman in the movies, collected Western art and her mother took all the children to the Cleveland Museum of Art for Saturday classes. “I was never any good at drawing but I was very good at learning the collection,” said Gund, who is also a board member of her hometown museum where she’s given some 50 works and promised masterpieces including the large-scale 1963 painting Map by Jasper Johns that currently hangs in the living room of her Park Avenue apartment in New York.
At 14, she lost her mother after an eight-year battle with leukemia, a devastating experience that fostered Gund’s empathy “being so conscious of what she was going through,” the collector described in the 2020 documentary Aggie, directed by her daughter Catherine. Gund went on to Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, where her art history teacher, Sarah MacLennan, recognized her visual interest and started sending her postcards from places like the Phillips and Frick collections to encourage Gund to visit them as well.
“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.
“I needed natural light for my life. That’s why I was stuck with contemporary art.”
Gund began collecting tentatively as a wife and young mother in her late 20s after her father died in 1966 and she came into her inheritance. “I wanted to collect Old Master drawings, but I realized I couldn’t live in the low-light conditions those works required,” she recalled. “I needed natural light for my life. That’s why I was stuck with contemporary art, which I haven’t regretted.”
Her first significant purchase was Henry Moore’s sculpture Three-Way Piece No. 2: Archer (1964), around the time she joined the Painting and Sculpture Committee at MoMA in 1968, but she donated it to the Cleveland Museum in 1970. “I had so much guilt over buying that piece that to assuage it, I knew I had to give it away,” Gund said, adding that her kids had started riding it like a horse.
Other early acquisitions included works by Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. She bought Two Greens with Red Stripe (1964) straight from Rothko’s carriage house studio on East 69th Street and had a meaningful talk with the artist there not long before his death by suicide in 1970. “He was so depressed when I went to see him the last time,” she said.
Through the collector Emily Hall Tremaine, Gund’s early mentor in the museum world, she had the opportunity to buy all of Ben Heller’s phenomenal Abstract Expressionist collection. “He was going to sell the whole thing at once for $1.5 million,” Gund said of his holdings that included three Jackson Pollocks, a Barnett Newman, and eight Rothkos among many others. “I went to the bank and they had been told by my father not to let us do anything insane—and they considered this insane.”
This patriarchal interference had a silver lining. Heller’s collection “would have been terrific but it would have been someone else’s and not mine,” Gund said, though she did end up buying an Arshile Gorky painting from Heller when he later decided to split up his trove. “I learned to see things and amass something more personal and that represented my own journey.”
In the Studio
That journey has sent her to the far reaches of New York and many places beyond over the decades to seek out new and underrepresented artists. “Aggie told me once that if an appointment of hers was canceled, she had a button that was a direct dial to Klaus Biesenbach when he was at MoMA PS1 and they would go [visit] an artist’s studio,” said Elizabeth Easton, who cofounded the Center of Curatorial Leadership with Gund in 2007. “It’s her favorite thing.”
“I love to see an artist in their studio and get a dialogue with them,” said Gund, who’s found it tough to be largely grounded by the pandemic but did manage a recent socially distant visit to Titus Kaphar’s studio in New Haven to meet with a group of artists he’s mentoring through his fellowship program, NXTHVN.
Temkin said it would be impossible to define Gund’s taste, it’s so catholic. “So many of her choices have to do with a belief in the individual who made it,” she said. “I’m always struck by the clarity of her approach to what she sees.”
“If you try to formulate what her vision is, I think the quality that’s consistent is a certain sense of fragile humanity,” said Judy Glantzman, an artist Gund has known and collected over 25 years and who remembers seeing exquisite works by Philip Guston, Lee Bontecou, Vija Celmins, and Gorky at chez Aggie during a party. “It’s unusual to see that kind of work in somebody’s home.”
Selling for Justice
Gund rarely sells her artworks. The most notable exception was her beloved Roy Lichtenstein painting Masterpiece (1962), which used to hang above the fireplace in her dining room. She sold it in 2017 to Steven A. Cohen for $165 million to launch the Art for Justice Fund, a six-year initiative with the Ford Foundation to reform and raise awareness of inequities in the criminal justice system. Stanley Whitney’s 2004 vibrantly hued gridded painting By the Love of Those Unloved now hangs in Masterpiece’s place.
In 2019, Gund and Oprah Winfrey co-chaired “By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women,” Sotheby’s first all women artists’ sale to benefit Miss Porter’s, the collector’s alma mater. Gund was willing to donate her Carmen Herrera canvas Blanco Y Verde (1967–68), bought in 2006 just two years after the artist sold her first painting at age 89. When it sold, the painting set an auction record for Herrera of $2.9 million.
“Aggie bought the Herrera many years before she became a big deal because she loved the composition and form and she loved the spirit of the artist who was working, working, working for so many years without recognition,” said Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of Sotheby’s fine art division. “Aggie plays the role of patronage as much as collector, supporting artists she believes deserve their due or deserve to have their work seen.”
Of the more than 2,000 pieces in her collection, spanning from 1940 to the present, Gund said approximately a quarter are earmarked for institutions in her will. Besides MoMA and the Cleveland Museum, there are about nine museums—including the Menil Collection in Houston where Gund is on the board and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College near Cleveland—that will each get a few things. Another group of artworks will eventually go toward continuing to pay for Gund’s social justice and other non-profit commitments and the rest will be divided among her children.
“I’ve loved collecting and I’ve had so much fun doing it,” Gund said. “They’ve become friends, so to speak.”