In Conversation with Agnes Gund

On March 7, 2012 Jonathan Fanton sat down with Agnes Gund to discuss her career and the ways in which an engagement with the arts can enrich American society. Gund has served on the boards of MoMA, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Frick Collection. In addition, she is the founder of Studio in a School, a not-for-profit that brings professional artists into New York City’s public schools and helps teachers connect art with other academic subjects.

March 7, 2012

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, the FDR Fellow at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. This historic building, home to Eleanor and Franklin, and Franklin’s mother, Sara, is now the center of Hunter College’s Public Policy program. In addition to teaching and research, Roosevelt House sponsors programs that bring policy makers together with faculty, students, and the general public to discuss issues of the day.

Tonight’s program is a little different. I have long wanted to have a series of public conversations with the most interesting people I know personally, people I have met in my years as President of the New School and the MacArthur Foundation but also through civic activities such as Human Rights Watch.

My first guest was former Mayor Ed Koch. Our conversation, no surprise, focused on the local state and national political scene. Tonight will be different. My guest is Agnes Gund, a dear friend from whom I have learned so much about the arts and about life. She is one of our country’s most thoughtful advocates for the arts and art education, a major collector, a builder of cultural institutions and a force for shaping public policies that nourish our cultural lives. It is appropriate we gather under the approving gaze of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt who did so much to advance the arts during the Depression. Think of the Federal Theater, Writers and Arts Projects that nurtured photographers Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks whose work you passed as you came in.

Aggie and I first met at the New School through a great lady, Vera List. Vera asked Aggie to serve on a committee to collect art for the public spaces at the New School and to loan to students for their rooms. The committee helped create the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, which sponsors lively programs about the larger role of the arts in our society.

Aggie strongly supported the New School’s legal challenge to the Helms amendment that aimed to prevent government funding for art deemed obscene or indecent. The New School refused to accept the Helms condition and sued the NEA, a case that the NEA settled by dropping the Helms language from all of its grants. We would not have been able to take on this challenge without the support of Agnes Gund and her colleagues.

Agnes Gund has done more for the arts in our city and country that anyone I know. She has been Chair of MoMA, now chairs its International Council, has served on the Boards of the Getty, the Frick Collection, the Barnes Foundation, her home town Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. And that’s only a sample. She has been honored with the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton, and the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. She is a leader in art and cultural policy in her role as Chair of the mayor’s Cultural Affairs Commission and the New York State Council on the Arts.

There is much more but I want to mention just one more thing, something I suspect may mean more to her than all of the above. She is Founder and long-time Trustee and supporter of the Studio in a School Association. She started that organization in response to a 1976 decision to cut arts and music from the curriculum of New York’s public schools to save money.  From modest beginnings in three elementary schools in 1977, the program is now in 160 schools, K-12. Aggie challenged the system to restore funding for art and music. And Studio in a School  now supplements the standard curriculum with opportunities to learn painting, drawing, and sculpting from professional artists, helps teachers incorporate art into their standard subjects, offers art workshops on Saturdays and during vacations, and provides teacher training programs for advanced students.

For all of these accomplishments and accolades, Agnes Gund is a humble, decent, caring person and a loyal friend. She understands how the arts enrich our lives, deepen our humanity, bridge cultural differences, call forth the best in us to imagine a better world. And fire our determination to work for a more just and peaceful society with opportunity for all. She has exquisite taste in art, a laser instinct about people, unstoppable confidence in the potential of young people, courage to say what she thinks and to express her values in action.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Agnes Gund.

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