Oprah Winfrey and Agnes Gund Are the Art World’s New Power Couple
The pair has teamed up on the first major auction of all-women artists.
Last year, the New York Times posed a weighty question: “Is Agnes Gund the Last Good Rich Person?” The 81-year-old art collector, philanthropist, and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art is a true art world powerhouse—and now she’s joining forces with Oprah Winfrey, on the first-ever major auction to feature entirely women artists.
Gund and Winfrey come from largely different worlds; Winfrey was born into poverty in Mississippi, whereas Gund grew up in Cleveland with a “deep sense of guilt about having money”—much of which she’s since donated to charity. And their collecting tastes probably don’t overlap much; Gund shared earlier this week that she has a sneaking suspicion that one of her favorite artists, Louise Bourgeois, is a little too “racy” for Winfrey, who seems to prefer Gustav Klimt.
Still, both share an appreciation for Miss Porter’s, an esteemed all-girls boarding school in Connecticut which prioritizes diversity via an array of scholarships. (Winfrey sent her niece to the school, which she also used as the model for the all-girls boarding school in South Africa that she founded in 2007; Gund graduated from Miss Porter’s in 1956.) Now, they’re giving those scholarships an extra boost by working with Sotheby’s to donate the full proceeds of the 40 works featured in “By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women” to the school’s financial aid. (Ahead of the auction on March 1, all of the works, including one by Bourgeois, plus artists like Carmen Herrera, Carrie Mae Weems, Cindy Sherman, and Jenny Holzer, will first go on display in an exhibition that’s free and open to the public at Sotheby’s in New York.)
Gund, whose passion for art took off at Miss Porter’s, thanks in large part to her art history classes, never expected that it would be decades before such an auction would take place. Still, it wasn’t until a decade after she graduated that the concept would have occurred to her. “It was only after some 10 or so years of collecting that I realized I’d only been collecting pieces by men,” Gund recalled. “And then, even once I realized, I didn’t see where the women were. I had to go out and look for them, even though all of my family is connected to art.”
Armed with her discoveries, Gund then began approaching institutions she thought would be receptive to exhibiting the work of women artists. Even then, though, she “couldn’t persuade” them: “I’d show them the work and they’d say, ‘Oh, she’s too old,'” Gund said.
Plenty of the women were old, though that’s on the system: A woman artist has a much better chance of being recognized if she’s dead. (And especially if she died young, like Eva Hesse, whom Gund pointed out made very little work compared to many other artists because she barely received attention during her lifetime.) Herrera, on the other hand, was all of 101 years old when she finally got her due, via an exhibition that the Whitney Museum of Art mounted in 2016. Herrera’s story, Gund lamented, “is not unusual”: “It makes me just furious,” she said. (These days, Herrera is still alive and working at age 103, a startling fact you can see Winfrey try to process in the video below.)
Gund realized she wasn’t alone in her fury early on; she ended up befriending Bourgeois—at that point, the only woman artist Gund collected—who occasionally expressed frustration with her lack of exposure. “She was sort of mad about that,” Gund said. “She didn’t talk about it too much, but she would refer to it once in a while, asking why she was so late in being recognized. But she loved the end of her life when she finally was.” (Bourgeois died in 2010, at age 98.) The same can be said for the late artist Elizabeth Murray, whose work has arguably been overshadowed by her famous remark that “Cézanne painted cups and saucers and apples, and no one assumed he spent a lot of time in the kitchen.”
But, Gund insisted,”there is hope”—particularly in terms of leadership roles in the art world, which she’s hoping to help balance out herself soon in naming Klaus Biesenbach‘s successor as the director of MoMA PS1, who she “certainly hopes” will end up being a woman. “The women on the board say, and are right to say, that as long as they’re good, it doesn’t matter, and that’s the way I have to think, too,” Gund said. “But personally, I’m really anxious for it to be a woman. I think it’s the kind of thing where a woman is needed.”
United as they are in balancing statistics like the fact that 51 percent of visual artists in the U.S. are women, but 87 percent of the 18 most prominent museums in the United States’ permanent collections are works made by men, so far, Gund and Winfrey haven’t talked about art very much. Instead, they’ve been having passionate discussions about political candidates and their shared enthusiasm for Beto O’Rourke.
Gund is also quite pleased with the number of women who’ve joined the Democratic party, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “They’re coming out at least in politics at least, if not in art,” she said with a laugh.
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