A Conversation with AGNES GUND

Agnes Gund by Anita Marie Antonini

April 2011

Though it has sometimes been mistaken as a luxury, Art is something that is a quintessential aspect of life, learning and growing. Everyone needs art, no matter how rich or how poor, no matter how young or how old. A life without art is akin to a life without expression, without empathy, without emotion, without love.

Agnes Gund, President Emerita and Chairman of the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art (among her many other accomplishments), is truly the heart of the arts. There is no one more known and respected in the art and philanthropic communities than her. She is a fearless champion for the arts: why it matters, and how it can heal the world. PMc Magazine got to the heart of the matter by focusing on one of the highlights of her life, Studio In A School.

Studio In A School, now in its fourth decade, is a non-profit organization that brings professional artists into schools and communities to teach classes in the visual arts. Read on and be moved by a true inspiration, the incomparable Agnes Gund.

Anita Marie Antonini: As a not-for-profit, Studio In A School’s programs are some of the most important for teaching children and teenagers how to develop creative thinking, which is helping them to understand themselves and each other better. It must be so rewarding for all involved within the Studio In A School family to know that the quality of so many children’s lives have not only improved, but changed forever. When you give, you get so much more back in return. Is there a personal story that you can share with us about what inspires you most with your work with Studio In A School?

Agnes Gund: I frequently attend SIAS classes; it’s a highlight of my life.

I see how children express themselves through art. The program exposes them to working artists, who discuss their projects with them. Then they talk with their classmates about what they are working on.  This “sharing” extends beyond their project and art and becomes a valuable part of their thinking process.

I’ve also seen their vocabularies and frame of reference expand. They discuss terms like texture and shape and line and color. They understand what happens when an artist works through an oil base as opposed to a water base. The children get a good feel for different media.

This, in turn, leads to a real appreciation of artists and artworks. They enjoy visiting museums, because they have a greater understanding of what they’re viewing, of the materials and technique the artist employed. This appreciation stays with them throughout their lives.

Most important, I see how their exposure to creating art allows these children to “express themselves” in a unique way. Unlike many of their other courses, there is no one “right answer” in creating art. They have an idea and they carry it out. It is an exercise in independence and individualism that, as the commercial says, is “priceless” for inner city children.

AMA: I know for myself learning photography gave me everything. Shy as child, by making pictures, I learned how to relate to people and it built my confidence. Making me into the person that I am today. I owe everything to photography. Art is a language that everyone can understand, especially children, but unless an individual continues in the arts, it unfortunately can become less important as the pressures of adulthood descend. How is it taught to make art as a visual experience part of every day life?

AG: All one has to do is observe these children painting and drawing and working on their projects to realize how much a “part” of their lives art becomes.

More often than not, their subject matter is their surroundings–their neighborhoods, the buildings, the playgrounds, the traffic.  They express what is closest to them in their daily lives.

And this knowledge and appreciation of art begins to permeate their lives; they look at the detail and composition of things around them–from buildings to parks, from street signs to window displays.

It provides them a whole different perspective of and focus on their surroundings. They begin to take notice of things around them that they may not have thought about before their introduction to art.

This knowledge and focus gives brings a new richness to their lives.

AMA: Studio In A School has been in existence for thirty-three years and still going as strongly as ever. Obviously, a need is being fulfilled in support for arts education that our government cannot provide sufficiently enough, if at all. Can you please comment on why art matters?

AG: Having observed this wonderful program for 33 years, I couldn’t imagine a child growing up without the opportunity to make art and learn from art.  It truly is a liberating experience for a child.

When you travel around the world, you see clearly that one reason art “matters” is because it transcends language and culture.  A beautiful sculpture in the Arab Emirates, where I just visited, means as much to the people who live there as a sculpture in the Bronx means to the people who live there.

All of our lives are touched by art–visual arts, music, dance, literature, design, architecture, film, and on and on. The current festival at the Museum of Modern Art, featuring new directors of films from around the world, is a vivid example of how beautiful and striking art spans societies and cultures.

As our programs at SIAS remind us, art especially “matters” to children, for all the knowledge and independence that it introduces.  A city park designed by a creative architect can present so many appealing and educational experiences for children.

Art “matters” because it intersects with every facet of our lives.

AMA: I was in attendance at the United Nations last year when Ross Bleckner accepted the honor of becoming a UN Good Will Ambassador for his work in Africa–Uganda in particular–for teaching former child soldiers and sex slaves the healing process of painting. As you know from also being in attendance that evening, there was a moving exhibition entitled, Welcome to Gulu, of the children’s art to benefit the Anti Human Trafficking Initiative. I am the proud collector of a piece by a girl named Peace. The painting is of the word WAR done in purple paint with an X below it. I was struck that the art on display this particular night was from the place of such a lost childhood. Can you elaborate on art as it relates to the healing process?

AG: I’m a firm believer that art can hasten the healing process and serve as an inspiration to anyone, regardless of their circumstances.

One great example is an extraordinary organization we support called RX Art, run by a remarkable woman named Diane Brown. RX Art places original pieces of art, many by well-known artists like Jeff Koons and Frank Stella, in patient, procedure and examination rooms of hospitals. As we all know, a hospital can be a dreary and depressing place for a patient. And these sometimes peaceful, sometimes colorful artworks undoubtedly inspire hope and promote healing.

In this context, I know from my own first-hand experience, how inspirational an element art can be. I was invited to teach a class of senior citizens at a wonderful center called Isabella House on 179th Street and Amsterdam in northern Manhattan. My “students” had an average age of 86, and they learned about artists and art history from the 1880s through to the 20th Century. It was gratifying to see the “value” that the students placed in the course and our discussions. They were truly inspired.

AMA: Are there any new projects in development and/or future goals for Studio In A School? Anything involving new media and/or social media perhaps? Any comments on how this may be affecting art for young people especially teenagers?

AG: There are always new projects at Studio in a School!

The most exciting current project is an exhibition, Artists’ Eyes: Children’s Art from Studio in a School, sponsored by and on display through May 13 at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery, between 51st and 52nd Streets. Artists’ Eyes includes more than 200 works of art by pre-kindergarten to sixth grade students from the five boroughs. All these paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages and prints were created in Studio’s programs.  The exhibition captures the energy of the City and its streets and is a perfect reflection of the value of SIAS.

The exhibition also highlights another Studio new initiative, “Art & Healthy Living,” which integrates visual arts with nutrition instruction, helping New York City children lead healthier lives. In tying this nutrition education program to artistic creativity, the children may be motivated to make their own healthy choices long after the education program is over.

Beyond these two initiatives, this spring Studio is launching  the Studio Arts Community, a free online membership group where visual artists, fashion designers, graphic designers, architects, curators, museum- and gallery-goers, arts education supporters, and SIAS alumni can interact and receive information about Studio programs.

Online members will receive images of artwork created in Studio’s programs, watch videos of students creating artwork, read interviews with famous artists, and explore posts written by prominent guest bloggers. Members will also have the opportunity to network/socialize at several special events throughout the year.

The goal is to use interactive resources to raise awareness about Studio in a School, especially among the City’s young people.

Agnes Gund is President Emerita and Chairman of the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art and  chairs MoMA’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center.  She joined MoMA’s Board in 1976 and served as President, 1991-2002.  She chairs the Mayor’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission of NYC. Board memberships include: Chess in the Schools, Cleveland Museum of Art, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, Frick Collection, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Socrates Sculpture Park. She founded and is Trustee of Studio in a School Association.  She received a B.A. from Connecticut College and an M.A. from Harvard University.




Agnes Gund interviewed by Anita Marie Antonini

Written by Anita Marie Antonini

Photography by Patrick McMullan & Clint Spaulding for Patrick

Agnes Gund Portrait, Photography by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders / Courtesy of Agnes Gund

Design by Marie Havens


Page 1/Cover:

Art Atmosphere, Points of View: Perspectives from Young Artists at Studio in a School, Phillips de Pury and Company, NYC, June 14, 2006, Photography by Clint Spaulding for Patrick

Page 2:

Agnes Gund, Studio in a School and Phillips, de Pury and Company hosts the Opening Reception for Celebrating Young Artists, Phillips, de Pury and Company, NYC, June 15, 2004, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick

Page 3:

Art Atmosphere, Points of View: Perspectives from Young Artists at Studio in a School, Phillips de Pury and Company, NYC, June 14, 2006, Photography by Clint Spaulding for Patrick

Page 4:

Art Atmosphere, Points of View: Perspectives from Young Artists at Studio in a School, Phillips de Pury and Company, NYC, June 14, 2006, Photography by Clint Spaulding for Patrick

Page 5:

Agnes Gund, Photography by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders / Courtesy of Agnes Gund

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