July 25, 2012 | Culture and Media
Woman of the Week: Elizabeth A. Sackler
Woman of the Week Elizabeth A. Sackler brings social activism to art through her endowment of the first feminist art center.
By Anna Louie Sussman
As the benefactor of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and a long standing Native American advocate, Ms. Sackler might be described as a philanthropist and an art historian. She’d offer a correction though: she’s a “social activist with means.” Art and giving are just two of the channels through which Ms. Sackler accomplishes her activism—with an emphasis on “active.” Sackler is involved in both the programming and the mission of the Center as well as its home, the Brooklyn Museum.
“I’ve always felt that when it’s all said and done, we really have art and architecture from our past that come into the present in other cultures,” Sackler said.
Her understanding of the importance of feminist art led her to endow the first art center of its kind at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. An 8,300-square-foot space, the center opened in 2004 with Judy Chicago’s monumental work The Dinner Party as its centerpiece. Sackler’s belief in art’s cultural significance also drives her mission to restore Native American artifacts back to the tribes from whom they were taken.
“My relationship to art and art activism in that sense has to do with righting a wrong, if you will, or educating people about what art should be acceptable for purchase and what art should not,” she said. “It’s a little bit different from the Center, because the Center really has to do with education about the past in order to really focus on the present so we can make decisions and know where we are going in the future.”
Sackler spoke to the Women in the World Foundation about how she became involved with feminist art and social activism.
You’ve said that you grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and were affected by the social justice movements of the time. How did that lead you to the art world, which some might think of as a fairly rarefied world?
We have two places: we have our home and we have our schools. I was very fortunate. I grew up during the civil rights movement in the 60s and we were very active in marches and street protests. There was a lot going on, but it all really began around voting rights in Alabama. At home, because of my parents, social justice became a very important part of my life, in the way in which we studied, in the way in which we behaved, the things that we talked about, what I wrote about—even in college—and things that I did. I was taught that part of our responsibility in life is to look at the world and to really fight for justice and for equality.
My father was an avid collector of Chinese antiquities, and both my parents enjoyed art and art history. We traveled to Europe a lot when I was young, and we always toured museums. So art has always been a very active part of my life, both in museums and at home. It’s a part of who I am.
What made you want to start a center for feminist art, and why or how did The Dinner Party become its touchstone?
I met Judy Chicago in the eighties and we immediately became very close friends. I began to purchase her work, and I was also supporting her work on The Holocaust Project.
But it was after I became immersed in repatriation and was working on my dissertation that I realized that a center that housed The Dinner Partycould be the springboard for all kinds of public programming related to women’s issues. The Dinner Party is 1,038 women who represent all of the disciplines: philosophy, politics, music, medicine, science, astronomy. You name it, they are there.
Catherine Morris has been a wonderful curator. She has raised the bar and opened the dialogue about feminist art. ‘What is feminist art? How do we perceive art with feminism in art?’ She’s really taking us, the Center, forward in new ways.
In that sense, the Center, by its very opening, by its existence, has challenged other museums to increase the number of women they have in their holdings.. We are continuing to lead the way in terms of dialogue, both the scholarly dialogue and the visual dialogue. The Lucy Lippard exhibit is opening in September, and her early writing on conceptual and feminist art in the seventies was breakthrough material. It really paved the way both for scholars and critics but also for artists. It’s very exciting and I know that there is a lot of buzz in the art world about this particular exhibit.
You lecture about ethics in the art market, but it often seems like markets operate outside of ethical considerations. Where do ethics fit in?
Well, the art market didn’t always exist as a market. Art existed as art and art collectors existed as collectors and museums were museums. The market is relatively new in the scheme of things, from the past 50 years maybe. And in many ways the market has been very destructive. I think it’s destructive to the creativity of artists. I think it opens opportunity for corruption as soon as the values become as high as they are.
And to that extent of course it’s interesting for women artists because women, in all other areas of the world, don’t get the same remuneration as men. Women do not get the dollars that men get in work or in art galleries, so that ties in to the women’s movement and equality on that front.
Where does philanthropy fit into that?
Well, it’s interesting. My father always said he’s not a philanthropist. He explained to me why, but I never fully understood it until now. He always said, “I’m having too much fun to be a philanthropist. This is too selfish!” And he also was very involved with the way things were manifest, with the way things were built that had his name on them.
I don’t consider myself a philanthropist. I can say that I’m a social activist with means. So I'm able with my means to do things that are larger scale in social activism than I would otherwise be able to do. But for me it’s not a check-writing exercise. I have been on the board of the museum, and the vision has been mine. I picked the architect, Susie Rodriguez, and have been involved in the public programming, such as the Sackler Center First Awards.
The Center is a two-fold work. It’s my largest art project—it’s a performance piece—and it’s also my largest social activist work. The museum has been this incredible partner for me. It’s just been a wonderful marriage and we’ve just created all these great things. And I’m also having a whole lot of fun.
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.