Sundance doc “Aggie” shows an art world legend’s path to social justice philanthropy
“Aggie,” part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Premiers category, is set to screen at the following times and locations:
Sunday, Jan. 26, 4 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2
Monday, Jan. 27, 9:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City
Friday, Jan. 31, 3 p.m., Temple Theatre
Saturday, Feb. 1, 9 p.m., Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, Sundance Resort
A blonde woman is looking toward the viewer and says to the strong-jawed man on her left, “Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work!”
The scene depicted in Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 painting “Masterpiece” is in his trademark comic-book style, with a speech bubble at the top and a portion of the back of the titular masterpiece just visible on one side.
When Agnes Gund bought the painting, she was confident in its artistic value, but its 2017 sale for $165 million revealed what Gund’s daughter, filmmaker Catherine Gund, called its transformative power.
Agnes Gund used part of the proceeds from the sale to found the Art for Justice Fund, which seeks to reform the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration.
“I think of it as an alchemy, where she literally turned this — the art didn’t disappear, nothing changed except suddenly there was all this $100 million that could be used to fight mass incarceration,” Catherine Gund said.
“Aggie,” which was set to premier Friday in the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Premieres category, tells the story of Agnes Gund’s life and her philanthropic efforts to help those less fortunate.
There is perhaps an irony that a white artist’s painting of two white people discussing the majority-white New York art world and the riches, fame and power the work might bring is now helping to upend a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects people of color.
Catherine Gund says her film attempts to examine how her mother, a white woman raised in privilege in segregated Cleveland in the 1940s and 1950s, came to have contributed so heavily to the cause of social justice.
“To me, it was surprising and huge,” she said of what her mother did with the painting’s proceeds. “I wanted to find out how she ended up being this person. … She’s an unexpected — an unusual, unexpected champion.”
“Masterpiece” hung for years in Agnes Gund’s New York City apartment, offering a commentary on the New York art scene in which she, a former president of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, has played a prominent role for years.
In conjunction with the film’s release, a curated selection of works from her personal collection will be exhibited at Susan Swartz Studios on Main Street, in addition to a show at Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City. The exhibition, called Art and Social Justice, is slated to run through Feb. 2 in Park City and feature artists including Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu and Mark Bradford.
It is expected to move to the Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City after the festival wraps up and remain on display until March 7.
Agnes Gund has collected art for decades, but has generally preferred to donate pieces from her collection rather than sell them.
When she acquired “Masterpiece,” she recalled thinking that she’d never make any money from it.
“I did think when I bought it that it really was that much of a thing,” Gund said. “It never occurred to me that you could do anything with a piece of art that you had. … It was very rare to have a piece that was going to bring in some money.”
The Art for Justice Fund is hardly Agnes Gund’s first foray into philanthropy. In late 1970s New York, after art funding was slashed for public schools, she founded Studio in a School to ensure access to art for the city’s children. The program is still running today.
She has received awards for her philanthropy and has been involved in other movements, including joining the board of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and donating to LGBTQ+ organizations.
Since its founding in 2017, the Art for Justice Fund has awarded $58.4 million in 141 grants, according to its website. Its mission is to fund artists and advocates who are focused on safely reducing the prison population, reinvesting in communities hardest hit by mass incarceration and creating art that changes the narrative around mass incarceration.
She said she was particularly inspired by Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” Ava DuVernay’s film “13th” and Eric Garner’s 2014 death, during which he infamously told the police officer choking him that he couldn’t breathe.
She said she hopes her donation serves as a sort of challenge to the rest of the art world to use its power to enact change.
“As Bryan Stevenson said, you have to get proximate to what’s happening. That certainly happened to me — I’ve learned an awful lot through this,” she said. “(Mass incarceration) does affect so many people. The fact that one of them goes to jail — it doesn’t just affect a single person, but it affects everybody that’s related to them.”
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