The Matron of Feminist Art
Arthur M. Sackler, along with his two younger brothers Mortimer and Raymond, made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. Between them they donated to many of the world’s leading cultural and academic institutions. In fact it is hard not to take note of a Sackler Wing or Sackler Center. There is one at the National Gallery in London, the Smithsonian at Washington DC and the Louvre in Paris and at Tel Aviv, Oxford and New York universities.
Arthur’s second daughter, Elizabeth, has continued along the path illuminated by her father, and two uncles. As President and Chief Executive of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, she is responsible for maintaining and lending over 1,000 of the most important works of Asian art collected by her father over his lifetime.
However, it is as “matron” of the arts, as she coins the term for her role, that she is emulating her father. Her first endeavour that brought her international reclaim was her pioneering activity in repatriating Native American ceremonial materials.
“Of all the work that I have undertaken, it is the most ‘Jewish’. The return of ceremonial objects, repatriation and restitution, is only a relatively recent phenomena. Questions of Nazi war looting, and the need to return looted art for example, only really came to prominence in the 1990s. Only then did people begin to fully understand the issues.”
“To assist the uninitiated, I equated what a Jew would have felt seeing the bones their grandmother on public display with the exhibition at the Natural History Museum in New York in the 1970s of the human remains of a Native American woman.”
It was this empathy that moved her to act by publicly purchasing three katchina masks at auction at Sotheby’s and returning them to their rightful owners, the Hopi and Navajo Nations. Out of this act, developed the American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation, which she founded in 1992, and which continues today to educate about the importance of repatriation, and the distinction between that which is appropriate for sale or exhibition and that which is not.
Then in 2001, at a meeting with the Director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, she presented him with a book about Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist megasculpture, The Dinner Party. Enquiring whether he would like it, he responded enthusiastically. However, she did not mean the book, she meant the work itself. Lehman was stunned.
Elizabeth was first introduced to Judy Chicago in 1988. The Dinner Party, her most epic work, consists of a triangular table 48 feet long on each side, with place settings for 39 notable women from Primordial Goddess to Georgia O’Keeffe, and set on a white floor inscribed with the names of a further 999 notable women.
Chicago is a pioneer of the feminist art movement who in the 1960s changed her name from Judy Cohen in a move that denounced the masculinisation of her roots. When Elizabeth arranged The Dinner Party’s gift, through the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, to the Brooklyn Museum as the centerpiece for a center for feminist art, Judy’s dream for its permanent housing was realised.
“My relationship with Judy was first a friendship, then a supporter of her work. She had been concerned about The Dinner Party, which had not found a permanent home. In addition to being an extraordinary work of art, The Dinner Party is a unique educational exposition on women’s history – as so many of the women it features are under recognized or not known at all.”
This is the point of connection between her projects – erasure. “The erasure of women in history; and the attempted erasure of American Native history; to that extent there is a common bond between the projects. As a Jew, it is also something that resonates strongly.”
Not only did she offer the work for permanent display but also the gift of a new wing of the museum to exhibit it. “Initially, I had no desire to have my name carved in stone, as it were, but after lengthy discussions with my sister I thought: Well, ‘the boys’ (as my grandmother referred to her three sons, my father and my uncles) have, with all the Sackler Wings here and abroad, created a great launching pad. My name could be a service to raising awareness of women in the arts – to which people might then pay more attention.” Thus came into being the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art – now the pre-eminent (and still possibly only) institute of its kind internationally.
Elizabeth’s interest and passion for art developed at an early age. Her earliest memories were of being taken to museums. “I remember vividly when I was 8 years old being in the Louvre and staring up at the Winged Victory of Samothrace (the classic sculpture honouring the goddess Nike), and being overwhelmed by her beauty and power.” When she was 15, the first Sackler gallery opened, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York – featuring monumental Chinese sculpture that her father collected.
As a Jewish family, the Sacklers placed greater emphasis on the values than the practice of the religion. “There is no question that the world in which I grew up in was one steeped in justice and equality, and that this informed the education I received at home and in my schooling. I cannot speak for my father, or his brothers, but Jewish principles and ethics continue to infuse all my work – both as a social activist and public historian.”
“My father was a true collector, a connoisseur. He did not consider himself a philanthropist though. Giving was not a cheque writing exercise, nor about naming opportunities, but about participating in the cultural landscape which improves knowledge, education, and understanding. He felt it an honour and privilege to envision what was possible, and making that a reality.”
“It has taken me until now [referring to the establishment of the Center for Feminist Art] to know what he meant by that – when you see a vision grow and take hold.”
“What I also learnt from him is the importance of having an intellectual and cultural and emotional relationship with the work that one does. Practically, he taught me how to have a relationship with institutions and how to negotiate with museums.”
It was this that held Elizabeth in good stead in later years.
She recognises that her interest in the feminist movement also can be traced back to her family. Throughout his medical career, Arthur Sackler was a forerunner in acknowledging and supporting contributions of women doctors and nurses and at the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s, he worked with established groups to increase the number of women accepted into medical school and related fields.
“Any father with daughters is likely to become a potential feminist activist, naturally wanting the best for his children. I grew up in a family where sexism did not exist. But I am aware that in the Jewish community there is a tension.”
She recalls the time that her son was preparing for his Bar mitzvah, and she took the opportunity to study too, at Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. Under Rabbi Marc Angel, she became aware of the tension within the Orthodox tradition from the separation of women from the Torah.
“He was struggling with how an Orthodox synagogue, how a man of Orthodox faith, can both acknowledge the role of women, but respect the separation commanded by Torah. It is a difficult area, and though I do not engage in the debate, I do observe it.”
Elizabeth’s son Michael, now 27, along with her daughter, Laura, 37, have made her a proud parent, and grandparent. “As I learnt from my father, my children are watching and learning from me. Laura founded Global Children in 2000, which is dedicated to assisting disadvantaged children in Cambodia.”
“This strong involvement in social causes I observe with my cousins too. Many are very active. Whether we do things on a small scale or a large scale, relationship with the family, betterment of community, is what life is all about.”
Her focus in the immediate future is on the Center of Feminist Art. “It is still just a toddler in terms of the life of a cultural institution. I want to ensure that I give it a good solid upbringing, and that the child – which is how I see it – grows up healthy and strong. The Center is beloved in New York, has increased the value of feminist art and as importantly is influencing museums worldwide to recognise and engage with it.”
Returning to her father, she recalls him first and foremost as a scientist. “His approach to art was scientific, collecting the largest corpus of data with an eye to synthesise information from a variety of places, and produce new thinking. He truly was a genius, a member of MENSA, with a passion for art which he had the fortune to share with the world.”
Arthur Sackler once said, “Art and science are two sides of the same coin. Science is a discipline pursued with passion; art is a passion pursued with discipline. At pursuing both, I’ve had a lot of fun.”
Concluding the interview, Elizabeth mentions that she is currently reading “The Lost” by Daniel Mendelsohn. “As a Jew, one comes across a book on the Holocaust, and the echo of the history of the Jews is such that one is just grateful to be alive, to be a Jewish woman at this moment of time. It is a privilege as my father told me. I take it with great joy. I am pleased and proud.”
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2010 Issue.
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