At a recent gala benefit for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Agnes Gund accepted an award for her achievements in philanthropy and did something fairly unusual among people in her social set: She barely spoke about herself.
Instead, Ms. Gund used her six minutes at the lectern to praise the museum for its contributions to culture and toasted her fellow medal recipients — the curator Thelma Golden and the sculptor Richard Serra — whose work enriched her life.
Ms. Gund, 80, is patently uncomfortable accepting awards. She worries that she is going to sound foolish, or look vain.
In the 1970s, she started Studio in a School, a highly successful nonprofit that brought arts education to public schools all over New York City. In the ’90s, she served as the president of the Museum of Modern Art. Her tenure there is often considered to be the museum’s “golden era,” according to Bob Colacello, the Andy Warhol biographer, who sits on the boards of numerous arts organizations.
Bill Clinton gave her the National Medal of the Arts in 1997. Michael Bloomberg has described her simply as “the best.”
Yet she still frets about being just another rich person who lives in a high-floor Park Avenue apartment, surrounded by modernist masterworks.
When people ask why she is a philanthropist, her answer is always the same: “guilt.”
Three years ago, Ms. Gund went to see Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” She was so disturbed by its message about America’s racist system of mass incarceration that she went home, removed her most prized painting by Roy Lichtenstein from the walls, and sold it to Steven Cohen, a hedge fund investor, to the tune of $165 million.
Then, she took her money from that and — with her friend Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation — started “Art for Justice” that would serve as a bank and provide funds for artists in prison and for organizations working in the arena of criminal justice reform. (She has already funded it in excess of $100 million.)
Aggie, as she is referred to by all of her friends, didn’t love having to call Dorothy Lichtenstein, the widow of Mr. Lichtenstein, to explain that one of Roy’s most important paintings (its title is “Masterpiece”) was going to a private collector rather than a museum.
But that, she could deal with. Because there really wasn’t another solution. Agnes Gund may not have much more left to give.
Her cash reserve has shrunk after a lifetime of giving to AIDS research, abortion rights groups and arts organizations, among many others. The valuable paintings in her home by artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Ellsworth Kelly have mostly been promised to museums.
If only there weren’t a journalist walking around the Getty Center asking people questions about her, stalking her for a profile she hadn’t agreed to, didn’t want written and probably would just end up filled with misquotes and half-truths. If only she could avoid that.
“What are we doing here?” Aggie Gund said.
It was late October and Ms. Gund was seated in her living room playing the part of barely willing subject, flanked by her daughter Cat, who is a documentary filmmaker, and Mr. Walker.
Over the fireplace, where the Lichtenstein once lived, was a painting by the African-American artist Stanley Whitney. To her left was an Alexander Calder sculpture.
When the philanthropy scene is mired in controversy, I explained, she has been the beacon floating above. MoMA staged an exhibition last spring featuring about 50 highlights from more than 900 works that Ms. Gund gave the museum over the years. In June, MoMA made her the guest of honor at its annual Party in the Garden.
In September, she received her medal from the Getty. In October, she and her daughter Cat accepted an award from the photography journal Aperture. Later this month, The Wall Street Journal will honor Ms. Gund at its annual Innovator Awards.
Never mind that for much of the last year, she could barely walk, thanks to a broken foot. Or that because of allergies, her nose never stops running.
“The other day,” Ms. Gund said, “I stepped into the elevator and said, ‘I have this cocaine habit.’ There were about six people and they just looked so startled.”
Her disinclination to speak about herself is at the heart of why people clamor to celebrate her.
Because all this occurred while protesters were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unfurling banners and scattering pill bottles inside the Sackler Wing, which is named for the family that owns Purdue Pharma, the company that makes the powerful painkilling drug OxyContin, and who are at the heart of the American opioid epidemic.
Similar controversies ensued over the naming of a plaza out front at the Met (for the conservative billionaire David H. Koch) and the flagship building of the New York Public Library in Midtown (for Stephen A. Schwarzman, the private equity investor).
Not long after the Met cut the ribbon on Mr. Koch’s $65 million plaza, the museum announced it was eliminating up to 100 jobs, affecting people in administrative, conservation and curatorial positions.
The New York Public Library accepted $100 million from Mr. Schwarzman to help transform its headquarters and then announced that three million of the books inside were going to be shipped off to a storage facility in New Jersey to save money. (After an uproar, the library backpedaled.)
The rightward political leanings of Mr. Schwarzman and Mr. Koch fed civic antipathy, but so did the seeming focus on capital improvements over art, books and after-school programs, the sort of projects Ms. Gund has spent a lifetime working on.
Indeed, in 2014, while Ms. Gund was serving on around a dozen committees at MoMA, including her current position as chairman of MoMA PS1, she publicly rebuked the museum over its second expansion plan in under a decade, telling The New York Times that “there are a number of us on the board who don’t want to see the museum become a mere entertainment center.”
This, according to Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, was hardly the first “intense” disagreement he has had with Ms. Gund over the years. He still thinks she was wrong to oppose the plan. But that did not change his estimation of her as an “extraordinary figure at MoMA,” a person whose “moral compass” and “generosity of spirit” is “astounding.”
The death of David Rockefeller in 2017 at the age of 101 also helped fortify Ms. Gund’s legend. With him gone, she has become the good witch of Park Avenue, torchbearer for the obligation of the rich in an era dominated by vanity and hypocrisy.
“With a lot of these philanthropists, you don’t know what the motives are or whether they’re going to be indicted in the next week,” said James Reginato, a writer at large at Vanity Fair. “Aggie personifies class in the old sense of the word. She’s unbesmirched by any kind of taint like so many of them. She’s universally adored.”
This argument was made to Ms. Gund. She barely reacted — until Mr. Koch’s name was mentioned.
“David Koch is a person I don’t like at all,” she said.
Who cares that he recently began supporting prison reform?
If Ms. Gund ever becomes the subject of a biographical movie, she will probably be played by Blythe Danner.
Although Ms. Gund is a die-hard progressive whose pocketbook is a virtual A.T.M. for Democratic politicians, there is a regal, almost atavistic quality to her. She has masked her renegade leanings behind an old-world exterior.
Her hair is coifed (it is not so much blond as it is wheat), her brooches are sparkly, and her wit is dry. She is friends with Gloria Steinem. She has spent a lifetime championing female artists and curators. Yet she remains uncomfortable using the word “feminist” to describe herself.
Though she perhaps enjoys attention a little more than she allows, Mr. Walker said, she is still not “guided by narcissism or self-congratulatory thinking.”
“I think there is something very satisfying for Aggie at this stage of her life to be breaking new ground in philanthropy and the arts and to be recognized for it,” he said. “But I also think she is still the little girl who feels that she is not fully worthy. Like many amazing women, she has been conditioned to see the world through the eyes of men and the things they valued.”
Ms. Gund grew up in Cleveland, where her father, George Gund, was the president of the Cleveland Trust Company, one of the nation’s largest banks.
He didn’t get married until he was 48 years old, Ms. Gund said, and there were whispers that he was gay. What Ms. Gund said she knew was that “he didn’t like women so much, and I was one of those, so he didn’t like me.”
In the early 1950s, Ms. Gund was sent to Miss Porter’s School. She was more popular with the maids than the students, who, she said, “were faster than I was.”
After graduation, she went to Connecticut College, studied “not that hard,” she said, and married Albrecht Saalfield, the father of her four children.
In 1966, Ms. Gund’s father died of leukemia. She was pleasantly surprised to find out she had been included among her brothers in his will and decided to start buying art.
Her first major acquisition was a Henry Moore sculpture of a horse. “But the children were playing on it so I gave it to the Cleveland Museum,” she said.
After that, she acquired work by Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg and Mark Rothko. All became close friends of Ms. Gund’s, except Rothko. He was already dead.
In the early ’70s, Mr. Saalfield took a job as the headmaster of a school in Greenwich, Conn. Soon, Ms. Gund was going into Manhattan to visit museums and meet artists at their studios.
In 1976, she joined the board of MoMA. A year later, she started Studio in a School.
Still, she was haunted by what Cat called “the presumption of dilettantism” that is attached to society wives. Her husband wasn’t eager to see her life expand. “He was certainly not encouraging her potential,” Cat said.
In 1978, Ms. Gund headed to Harvard (where she was a legacy). Two years later, she got a master’s degree in art history, obtained a divorce and moved to New York City.
That was around the time a new generation of collectors began trading art like stocks. Ms. Gund had a valuable portfolio of her own, but she regarded herself as a patron, not a profiteer. So when she needed space, or got tired of the things she bought, she usually bequeathed them to museums.
MoMA was her answer to Manhattan Mini Storage.
Sometimes, the people at the museum (and at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where she also made a lot of donations) didn’t know what to make of the things she brought them.
They understood why she had Louise Bourgeois (“everyone had her,” Ms. Gund said), but Glenn Ligon, Martin Puryear and Julie Mehretu?
Who were these people?
Still, when they took the gifts, their value (and reputations) frequently soared. And Ms. Gund’s inclination to be a connector for artists and curators earned her a reputation that harked back to Gertrude Stein and Peggy Guggenheim.
Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, to which Ms. Gund is a prominent donor, described Ms. Gund as a “mentor, a role model, an inspiration and a friend.” Their relationship began in the early ’90s, when Ms. Golden was a young curator at the Whitney, and one of the only black curators at a major museum.
“She completely supported my dreams and my aspirations,” Ms. Golden said. “Her support was steadfast.”
And in recent years, Ms. Gund’s interest in racial justice issues took on a more personal component, as her daughters Cat and Jessica both have black children.
It didn’t bother Ms. Gund at all that Cat came to identify as queer. Though she was a little sad Cat didn’t come out as well as a debutante. “Can you see it?” Cat said, laughing. “I haven’t worn a dress in 40 years.”
Every year, Aggie sends out a family Christmas card. Photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Lyle Ashton Harris take the portrait. Gordon Davis, the first black president of Lincoln Center, said that receiving it is a little like getting the annual bulletin from the United Nations.
When her black grandchildren were toddlers, people on the Upper East Side smiled and said hello to them, treating them as if they were the cutest things in the world. Now, they are tall young men who sometimes wear hoodies. Ms. Gund has seen the suspicious looks they get walking down the street.
It’s even different, she said, for Jessica’s children, who are darker-skinned than Cat’s children. “Catherine’s kids are more ‘acceptable,’” said Ms. Gund, whose insights about racism and sexism deepened her relationships with the artists she championed.
“I’m biracial and her grandchildren are biracial, and her daughter is gay and I’m gay,” said Ms. Mehretu, a frequent guest at the ethnically diverse, cross-generational dinners Ms. Gund hosts at her home. “Then I was having kids. There are all these different overlaps.”
Ms. Mehretu met Zeresenay Mehari, a filmmaker, at one of Ms. Gund’s dinners. They subsequently collaborated on a film called “Difret,” about arranged marriage in Ethiopia.
Lyle Ashton Harris, another frequent dinner guest, whose photographs deal with his history as a gay black man, linked up with his current gallerist, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, after Ms. Gund introduced them and called Ms. Greenberg Rohatyn on his behalf.
Mr. Harris said he has seen her do such things repeatedly. “She’s a connector,” he said. “And what she does is not an armchair response or a social gesture. It’s a consistent pattern of putting her money where her mouth is.”
One irritating mistake that rich, powerful people frequently make is believing that other rich, powerful people are nice based merely on their experiences together as rich, powerful people.
But Ms. Gund is beloved by the support staffs of the organizations she donates to.
Tunji Adeniji has overseen security at MoMA since 2008.
“I have never met anyone like Aggie,” Mr. Adeniji said. “She sees a security guard before she sees a director, she sees a housekeeping person before she sees a chief, and the collection MoMA displayed this spring reflects that. Usually, big collectors go for Picasso, Van Gogh, maybe Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She’s bringing in people who are not as recognized. That’s what the collection in the galleries reflected.”
Still, that exhibition of Ms. Gund’s gifts nearly didn’t happen.
According to Ann Temkin, who curated the show, Ms. Gund spent months hemming and hawing about whether she wanted the show to take place.
Was her collection really important enough to warrant this attention, she asked? Couldn’t they find a way to display the artists she loved without placing her at the center of things?
“What we needed to persuade her of was that this was about the art and not about her,” Ms. Temkin said. “And we had to ask a few of her staff and friends to join us in our efforts.”
One of these people was Mr. Walker. He told her, basically, to get over it.
That was more or less the same message delivered by Craig Starr, a gallery owner who frequently serves as Ms. Gund’s escort on the benefit circuit.
“I just kept telling her she had to do it,” Mr. Starr said.
Once the matter was settled, the museum approached again. It wanted to honor Ms. Gund at its benefit as well.
This was a bridge too far, until the museum agreed to invite the security guards and support staff to the after-party for free. “This had never happened,” Mr. Adeniji said. “It’s normally $75.”
Meanwhile, Cat Gund turned her mother into the reluctant subject of a new documentary she is producing and directing. One scene in the trailer takes place in the back of a town car on the way to an Art for Justice board meeting. In it, Cat asks her mother what she would most like the reaction to be.
“I hope that the film will not be seen by too many people,” Ms. Gund says.
Recently, as Ms. Gund has taken to selling off more of her paintings to bankroll her most important causes, she has begun expressing regret about not entering into the family business.
It would be nice at this stage in her life to have a little more money, she said during our interview. Like her brothers do.
Cat looked perplexed. “What would you do with it?” she asked.
“Well,” Ms. Gund said. “Give it away.”