Agnes Gund was in her late 70s when she saw a documentary that set her on a bold new path. The New York City art collector and philanthropist had already made enormous contributions to culture and education as president of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and founder of Studio in a School, a thriving nonprofit that for four decades has brought arts programs into public schools. But Gund saw a different opportunity in 2016 after watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a film about racial inequality in America’s criminal justice system.
Practically on the spot, Gund — known warmly as “Aggie” — decided to sell her favorite piece of art, a painting that hung in her Park Avenue living room by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. The artwork, titled “Masterpiece,” sold for $165 million. Gund used the money to create the Art for Justice Fund, which aims to reduce mass incarceration in the United States. The effort is inspired in part by Gund’s concern for her own grandchildren, six of whom are African American.
Now 82, Gund’s heroic activism is the focus of another documentary, Aggie. The feature-length project is directed by Gund’s Emmy-nominated daughter, Catherine, and the project offers a glimpse behind the scenes of an extraordinary life and family.
The daughter of a wealthy banker from Cleveland, Gund might have played the role of dutiful housewife and mother to her four children. But when her father died of leukemia in 1966, she used the fortune she inherited to purchase art by the postmodernist masters of the day. She befriended and supported artists such as Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns, and quietly championed lesser-known creators and curators, particularly women and people of color, often through gifts.
Whenever she needed space in her apartment, Gund gave her blue-chip art finds to museums (she donated more than 800 pieces to MoMA alone), making her one of the art world’s greatest benefactors. Gund’s many honors include the National Medal of Arts, in 1997, and last year’s Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award, presented to Gund by the late justice herself.
The documentary, shot over several years starting around 2017, includes archival photos going back to Gund’s Ohio childhood. “It began with home movies and turned into this celebration of who she is and all that she’s achieved,” says Catherine, 55, sitting for a Zoom interview beside her mom. Gund was not especially comfortable as a documentary subject (“I hope that the film will not be seen by too many people,” she says in the film.) But Catherine knew her mother’s life was worth capturing.
“Growing up, you take it for granted that this is your mother. Now you can’t believe it was real.”
AARP spoke to Aggie and Catherine about the power of art to transform consciousness and inspire social change, and what it was like for mother and daughter to work together on a project like this.
AARP: Aggie, you are famous for shunning the spotlight, even as you’ve taken a central role in advocating for the arts and social justice. What was it like having the camera on you?
Agnes Gund: It took a while to get used to it, and I’m glad it’s through. But the longer distance I have from it, the more I appreciate it. I don’t love the attention, but I do like putting the focus on arts and how important it is in my life and in the lives of others. We need art.
Catherine Gund: We need it more than ever now. Art has a way of connecting us, of informing us, of making us feel less alone. Especially this year when we’re all isolated, you see that art can be like companionship for people. It helps us answer big questions, to make sense of the world.
AARP: What did you learn about each other in making the film? Did anything surprise you?
Catherine: It brought us closer together. So much of my mother’s life has been about supporting creativity and education and arts. But it was great to have this opportunity to focus on who she is as a person. I once again realized what an amazing mother she’s been to me, and I’ve learned so much from her example. She listens to people. She’s willing to learn. She never felt like she had all the answers. Those are powerful traits for someone others look to as a leader. It reminds me that it’s OK to say, I don’t know.
AARP: Aggie, what did you learn about your daughter and grandchildren, who also appear in the film?
Agnes: The main thing is that family matters above all else. There’s something so profound about the relationship and the blessings you get from family, and how you can appreciate the phases of life. Seeing my grandchildren now, hearing their questions, seeing the promise and possibility in their eyes. That really is something that nourishes and inspires you.
AARP: Conventional wisdom is that people slow down as they age. But Aggie, you’ve done incredible things into your 70s and 80s.
Catherine: She doesn’t stop! She’s still pushing for change.
Agnes: And why not? There’s so much work to be done. Age shouldn’t keep you from doing important work. COVID has been so difficult on the prison system, so Art for Justice has continued fighting. It’s horrible what’s happened with prisoners, and we’re making some progress. For example, not keeping people in jail because they can’t afford bail, which is a problem all over the country. And thank goodness there are younger generations — my children and others who are very active — bringing changes about. I can leave it to them to go forward with the message.