She’s still a giver, not just in terms of her large-scale philanthropy but on a more intimate level. She is known for the treats she sends when a friend needs a pick-me-up, whether Graeter’s ice cream from Cincinnati (her own freezer is chock-full of the stuff—and little else) for a woman who just lost her husband or a succession of flowers and gifts to fellow philanthropist Lewis B. Cullman’s ailing wife, Dorothy. Dinner guests often receive books, individually selected. In a nice case of what goes around comes around, Gund sent Ellsworth Kelly flowers when he was hospitalized in the early Eighties. “I did a drawing of them and gave it to her,” Kelly says, referring to Three Lilies. Another Kelly, Siberian Iris, now hangs in the hallway, where works on paper by contemporary masters—think choice examples of Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman and Lee Bontecou—are mounted frame-to-frame the way family photos line the corridors of typical homes.
When Gund began collecting in earnest, after her father’s death in 1966, she had in fact hoped to concentrate on Old Master drawings. “But you have to live in the dark if you do,” she says. “You can’t have light, or you have them in a room where the shades are down mostly. I had that [seasonal affective disorder] thing where you really need light or you get very depressed.” Instead she took up contemporary art because it offered the added perk of meeting its creators. Beyond an introduction at an opening, Gund has become friend and confidante to many of America’s most prominent artists. “Everyone falls in love with her,” says Kelly. “You can tell her I’m in love with her.”
Chuck Close, who recently donated some works to MoMA in her honor (and who also enthuses “I love Aggie”), recalls how Gund conspired with then chief curator of painting and sculpture Kirk Varnedoe and trustee Anna Marie Shapiro and her husband, Robert, for the museum to buy the first large painting he made after becoming a quadriplegic 20 years ago, a portrait of the artist Elizabeth Murray. MoMA’s stamp of approval, Close says, showed the art world “the work is there.” “Obviously the Modern is not going to buy something out of sympathy,” he says.
Not content to be just a wealthy collector and patron, Gund enrolled at Harvard in the late Seventies when she and her first husband, Albrecht Saalfield, were living with their four children in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned a master’s degree in art history. She is, Ogilvie-Makari says, “a champion of contemporary art in its most progressive manifestations,” and was insistent that not just household names hang in the apartment—hence the presence of James Lee Byars’s circular lace abstraction, Teresita Fernandez’s intricate wall sculpture and Cai Guo-Qiang’s enormous drawing made from gunpowder. Johns marvels at Gund’s ability to collect avowed masterpieces while also connecting with untried, experimental artists. “Her interest in the scene is much broader than mine,” he says. “I don’t really know what most young artists are doing. But Aggie does.”