Agnes Gund, Arts Patron and President Emerita, Museum of Modern Art: Grooming the Next Generation of Arts Leaders

October 28, 2008
Agnes Gund, Arts Patron and President Emerita, Museum of Modern Art: Grooming the Next Generation of Arts Leaders

By the time philanthropist Agnes Gund was born in 1938, her father, Cleveland Trust Company president and board chair George Gund, had already instituted a formal program of charitable giving that would become the George Gund Foundation in 1952. For more than forty years, "Aggie" Gund — the second oldest of Gund's six children — has influenced the direction of arts in the United States as a collector of Post-War art, an arts patron, trustee, educator, and nonprofit founder. President emerita of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and current chair of its International Council, Gund also chairs the Mayor's Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission of the City of New York and serves on the boards of the Frick Collection, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Barnes Foundation. She served on the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust from 1994 to 2006 and, subsequently, on the selection committee tasked with finding a replacement for embattled Getty president Barry Munitz.

In 1977, Gund founded Studio in a School to bring artists into the New York City public schools after budget cuts virtually eliminated arts from the curriculum. In 2006, she co-founded the Center for Curatorial Leadership to train curators to rise to leadership positions in museums. And this year, she gave the Columbia University Oral History Research Office a two-year grant to conduct oral histories of twenty women artists, collectors, and curators whose contributions have impacted the world of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Gund's personal giving, which she is reluctant to discuss, is usually channeled through the AG Foundation. According to Sonia Lopez, the foundation's administrator and philanthropic advisor, each year the foundation makes 425 gifts totaling about $11 million, with approximately 90 percent of that supporting the arts.

A Cleveland native and longtime supporter of arts institutions in that city, Gund is also an honorary trustee of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Independent Curators International, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland. She holds an M.A. in art history from Harvard and an honorary doctorate from Brown University, Case Western Reserve, and other institutions. In 1997, Gund received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government.

Philanthropy News Digest recently spoke with Gund in her midtown Manhattan office about her lifetime commitment to the arts, her perspective on the changing of the guard at several major arts organizations, and her family's ongoing philanthropic ventures.

Philanthropy News Digest: There is debate within the museum world about whether new leaders should rise to their positions through the curatorial ranks or be chosen for their business acumen. Where do you think a museum executive director's strengths should lie? And which is easier, for an administrator to learn about art or a curator to learn about administration?

Agnes Gund: It's much harder for an administrator to learn about art. An arts institution, regardless of its size, depends on the knowledge of the person directing it to enable that person to work with the curators and the people setting up the exhibitions. Usually, museum directors are responsible for hiring the people that work for them and if they don't know anything about art, they're really not going to have an easy time of finding or attracting the best people. The director who knows about art understands how long it really takes to put on a show, do all the proper research, create the catalog — which is very important to a museum's finances — and work with the education department. The director is also the person who has to get the museum behind both the development and the marketing of the show.

The director who knows about art understands how long it really takes to put on a show....

PND: Does it ever make sense to have joint leadership that consists of a creative director and an administrator?

AG: That type of set-up has existed at several major museums but has tended to be problematic. The creative director might resent the administrator's power, or the administrator or board president may try to second-guess the director. The institution usually doesn't run smoothly until one person — the director — takes charge.

PND: You co-founded the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York City a couple of years ago. Why did you decide to invest your energy and money to launch the project?

AG: I've supported curatorial advancement since the 1990s. From my experience sitting on search committees for museum directors, I learned that the candidates fell into certain categories. For example, a search committee may really want to hire people in the "A" category, but those candidates might not take the job. The "B" category includes people who are more likely to take the job but there's still a high likelihood they'll turn it down. The "C" category of candidates might be considered. Then there are "D" people — the curators. I used to wonder whether curators were put in the bottom category because people didn't believe they had the credentials or because headhunters weren't as knowledgeable as they should have been about the qualifications curators have.

Today, curators seem to do a better job of advancing themselves, and more museum leaders are coming from the curatorial ranks. Still, many curators don't want to become directors because there's so much administrative work. For example, Thomas Campbell, who was recently chosen to lead the Metropolitan Museum, is a curator, and he may find it very frustrating to have to focus primarily on his administrative and fundraising responsibilities and not have the time to work on shows. Even at some of the smaller institutions, directors don't have time to do curatorial work because they're so busy fundraising.

PND: You have considerable experience on nonprofit boards, including serving eleven years as president of the forty-member Museum of Modern Art board. What does it take to lead an effective, cohesive board of trustees?

AG: First, it takes being able to get along with the museum director — especially a strong director. You also have to be able to get the director to listen to your ideas and come to know your strengths, just as you must come to know his. And you should also be able to transmit your passion for the institution — whether by osmosis or example — to board members so that they share it. We're really lucky at MoMA because our trustees are not simply serving on the board because it's prestigious; they really like to work for the institution. Each trustee is required to serve on at least two committees. Many of the committees also have enthusiastic members who aren't trustees but later become trustees. That's a real plus for the institution.

PND: In addition to funding international shows and traveling exhibitions, how does the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, which you currently chair, support the arts internationally?

AG: The International Council has existed since 1953 to support the museum's International Program both nationally and internationally. Today it's made up of two hundred and thirty-three representatives from thirty countries and twenty states — mainly board chairs of museums or trustees, but there are also collectors and nine museum directors, including the directors of the Hermitage, Pushkin, and Kremlin museums in Russia, the Hara Museum in Japan, and the National Art Museum of China. The council hosts symposia and workshops on issues ranging from conservation to fundraising; it supports curatorial travel and travel abroad for MoMA staff who assist museum professionals in other countries with problems they're facing while learning from and building relationships with them; and it very importantly supports MoMA exhibitions both at home and abroad.

PND: Over the past several years, the world of antiquities has seen a number of museum pieces of questionable provenance repatriated to their countries of origin. Have the legal challenges and allegations of trafficking in looted artifacts hurt the museums in question and the art world generally? Or have they helped remedy a long-standing concern?

AG: It's become politically correct to want to return everything — not thinking of what happens to those things once they're returned. Very few people get to see them after repatriation, and they're often not cared for appropriately. Indeed, many countries have no place to exhibit the artifacts. Their storerooms are full of pieces that should be out and seen and understood by other people.

It's become politically correct to want to return everything — not thinking of what happens to those [artifacts] once they're returned....

Philippe de Montebello, the director of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, stands out in his belief that we should continue to collect antiquities. The museums could even do a massive loan program. The issue has to be rethought. Hopefully, Philippe will have the time to work on it when he retires.

PND: You've served on the boards of a number of organizations, including the Barnes Foundation, the Getty Trust, and the World Trade Center Memorial, that were embroiled in controversy while you were a board member. What, if anything, can a board member do to defuse a controversy when it threatens to jeopardize the future of an organization? When is resignation an option?

AG: The most important thing board members can do is speak their mind. The only post I've ever resigned from was at the World Trade Center Memorial, which was a really tricky situation. If you weren't a politician or somebody in a particular niche, it didn't much matter whether you spoke up. Certainly, the families that lost loved ones were most closely affected by the tragedy, but their voices shouldn't have been the only ones that were heard or that dictated what happened. If all the families had rejected the plans, no one would have quibbled, but it was just a few. Or if someone had been there to say, "We're going to take all of those things into account," it would have ended the controversy. But that didn't happen. Mayor Bloomberg finally came in and said, "We're going to do it this way." That did make a difference, but it was well after I had resigned.

I served on the Getty board during an extremely controversial time, but I didn't resign. After my term ended, I stayed on the museum's selection committee, which was tasked with finding a new president and CEO. I also served on the Barnes Foundation board just after it had been granted the right to move from its inaccessible home in the suburbs into Philadelphia. I believe the Barnes should be an urban institution; otherwise, it won't be able to sustain itself. There were too many restrictions. I was on the committee to find an architect for the new location and I think we made a good choice in the New York City-based husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. According to the judge's ruling, the artwork in the new galleries has to be exhibited exactly as it was in the original building.

PND: In a 1991 interview with the New York Times, you said you thought museums were about education. What can museums in the twenty-first century do to attract and educate larger and more diverse audiences?

AG: The twenty-first century is about the World Wide Web and the Internet, so museums have to make their works accessible online. Many officials worry that if people can access art on the Internet, they won't visit museums. But if the online presentation is done right, it makes people want to come in. If museums create insightful, fun, interactive Web sites like MoMA's, not only will they attract people to their actual exhibits, they'll inspire some of those people to enter the field.

You attract diverse audiences by having a strong education program. For the past ten years, I have anonymously funded a program called Arts Intern that Studio in a School is taking over. Modeled on a program at the Getty, it provides paid internships to undergraduate New York City residents who are from diverse cultural backgrounds, giving them the opportunity to work in museums in the city for ten weeks in the summer. The Studio Museum in Harlem, Jewish Museum, El Museo del Barrio, International Center for Photography, Noguchi Museum, and other institutions have been involved, but the city's largest museums, including the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, and MoMA, don't participate because they have their own programs. Some of these interns have gone into museum work, which is so important, because in order to attract a diverse audience, a museum needs to have a diverse staff.

In order to attract a diverse audience, a museum needs to have a diverse staff....

At the Modern, we're diversifying slowly and in different ways. For instance, there's more diversity in the art we're showing and how we present it, and that has helped us attract a broader audience. In some galleries, visitors now see drawings and photographs exhibited with paintings and sculptures. A number of our curators work across lines, and we collect that way, too. For instance, a photograph might be bought by both the painting and sculpture departments — and sometimes by the architecture department, if the image has some relationship to architecture. The departments aren't as separate as they once were, and with so many artists working in mixed media, we can't segment them into departments anyway. Now when we consider purchasing an artwork or mounting a show, we think in terms of the overall museum. That's a strength.

I'm concerned that in trying to reach younger people and funders, museums risk becoming little more than entertainment centers. It's easy to go too far when you try to appeal to people in ways that aren't about art and neglect to educate them about what they're seeing or make them curious to learn more about certain artists or themes in art.

PND: In what ways does your personal philanthropy overlap or complement that of your brothers, sister, and children?

AG: My siblings and I are interested in different areas. For instance, my sister, Louise, is very much into the environment and women's issues; her philanthropy is mostly focused out West, but she often gives anonymously. My brother Gordon, who has retinitis pigmentosa, has done a lot in the area of macular degeneration through his Foundation Fighting Blindness. Despite being blind since the age of thirty, he is also a sculptor. My brother Graham and his wife have supported the arts in Boston, including the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. My brother George is particularly interested in film and the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and Washington, D.C. He has also been involved with the Sundance Institute for many years; he and his wife, Iara Lee, are now working independently through Caipirinha Productions on a film about the causes of war and conflict around the world and how some activists are effecting change. My brother Geoffrey, who is president of the Gund Foundation, is also involved in the Bank Street School for Children in New York City, where his wife sits on the board. All my brothers have been really generous over the years to Studio in a School, the arts organization I founded in the late 1970s. Gordon just gave us a large grant in honor of my seventieth birthday. And when I retired as president of the Museum of Modern Art, my brothers and their wives — George and Iara, Gordon and Lulie, Graham and Ann, and Geoffrey and Sarah — gave a generous gift in my honor to support the Artist's Choice exhibitions, begun by the late Kirk Varnedoe.

All my brothers, my sisters-in-law, and my sister have served on the board of the Gund Foundation, whose philanthropy focuses on education, environment, and social issues more than the arts. I'm the only one who hasn't served on the board. Initially, I felt I was too liberal, but that's certainly not true anymore. I have so much admiration for what they've done, and my giving isn't out of sync with theirs at all. There was a period when I could have gone on the board, but I was too busy to be able to put in the time that was required. However, the foundation's board is still made up mostly of family members, including two of my four children. Catherine, who co-founded the Third Wave Foundation, is a longtime trustee for the Gund Foundation and was on the founding boards of Iris House, the Sister Fund, the HIV Law Project, and Working Films. She's also a filmmaker and is currently working on a movie about the child obesity epidemic in this country. My daughter Anna is the mother of four children and coach of the girls lacrosse team at the Hotchkiss School; she just joined the Gund board and will be considered a junior member for her first year. My son, David, and daughter Jessica haven't served on the board. David lives in California, where he volunteers and supports causes related to the environment and arts education, and Jessica, a social worker, is supportive of programs related to social services.

PND: The Gunds are one of the leading families of American philanthropy. What does that legacy mean to you, and how would you like to see it carried forward?

Philanthropy has been important in each generation of my family, and I think the impetus behind it has mostly been Midwestern values....

AG: Philanthropy has been important in each generation of my family, and I think the impetus behind it has mostly been Midwestern values and the desire to do something besides spend all the money we've inherited on ourselves. My children and my siblings' children grew up learning about philanthropy from us, and they may be a little more knowledgeable about how not to get overly extended than we've been. I think my daughters will remain or become active in the Gund Foundation or follow their own giving path. My daughter Jessica recently got money from a charitable trust and decided to give it all away to causes that matter to her.

But I'm one to talk. One of my brothers once told me he doesn't ever commit to anything for which he doesn't have the funds. That's not true in my case. I give away two-thirds of my income every year, and sometimes I have had to sell artwork to make good on my commitments.

PND: Well, thank you for speaking with us, Aggie.

AG: Thank you.

PND staff writer Alice Garrard spoke with Agnes Gund in September. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, at