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Courtesy Elizabeth Sackler

“Equal pay, equal wall space”

Art and activism: The compass points of Elizabeth Sackler’s storied career

By Alli Maloney on January 8, 2016

It takes only a sweeping glance of her office to understand where Elizabeth Sackler finds motivation. Throughout the room are framed highlights from her career, photos of the public historian with friends like Gloria Steinem, shots of her family, and, of course, artwork.

Globally, the Sackler name is synonymous with art. Her father, renowned psychiatrist Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, made his fortune in medical advertising and was one of the world’s foremost art collectors and patrons, with holdings in the tens of thousands and benefactions at the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton, and Harvard. His influence — and work ethic, having started working at 13 to help his family recover from the Depression — is still a clear driving force in his daughter, Elizabeth. Now 68 years old, regal and commanding, she has spent decades carving out space for herself within her family’s vast, moneyed legacy, but never strayed far from art. “My father always said to me, ‘When you die, you need to leave the world a better place than when you entered it’,” she told Women in the World on a rainy morning in her Manhattan headquarters.

As the first female chair of the Brooklyn Museum’s board in its 200-year history, having established the first-of-its-kind Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Elizabeth Sackler is the powerhouse responsible for some of the most compelling programs that New York museum-goers have ever seen. As a testament to the nature instilled by the elder Sackler, a man responsible for New York City’s first integrated blood bank, she has used her powerful position to make room for those typically marginalized: women, American Indians, the Jewish community, and incarcerated people.

Art was always a part of her life, she explained, but “the social justice piece comes out because I can’t help myself.”

(L) The cover of Ebony magazine's iconic May 1965 issue, which focused on the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama; (R) A photo of Elizabeth Sackler appeared on page 40 of the issue, in which she is seen taking part in a civil rights protest for Selma in New York City.
(L) The cover of Ebony magazine’s iconic May 1965 issue, which focused on the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; (R) A photo of Elizabeth Sackler appeared on page 40 of the issue, in which she is seen taking part in a civil rights protest for Selma in New York City.

At eight years old, Sackler had been to every museum “here and on the other side of the Atlantic” and by teenhood in the 1960s, she swore she’d never step foot in another. At the New Lincoln School — a now-defunct integrated private high school that practiced experimental educational methods – she was taught to operate as an individual change-maker in a community of activists during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. “We went to marches together as classes,” she explained, producing a photo of her fifteen-year-old self with a sign in hand, taken from a 1965 copy of Ebony with Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma on the cover. She considers herself as a social activist “right from the beginning” and credits the school, her family and her parent’s friends – musicians, artists and thinkers – and for teaching her to reject social separations like racism, anti-Semitism and sexism as they existed then, and the ways they present themselves now. “There’s always something that needs to be made better and right,” Sackler said.

She took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War into in the early 1970s, a righteous period for women’s rights in which her father worked to correct gender disparity in medical schools, which then accepted only 17 percent of women who applied. In the 1980s, she met Judy Chicago and started collecting her work while the feminist artist examined her Jewish heritage through The Holocaust Project. The pair became close, sharing Passover together. “Judy was really my teacher about the feminist art movement,” she explained. Art and society were then experiencing parallels of interest to Sackler, probing feminism and Jewish identity, but they took the backburner during the decade she spent immersed fully as an advocate for American Indians.

In May 1992, Sackler witnessed wrongdoing that her privilege allowed her to address directly: Sotheby’s refused to withdraw three American Indian masks of spiritual significance from its auction block, ignoring pleas from Hopi and Navajo tribes who said they needed the objects to continue their life ways. She went to see the full collection — which included papooses, blankets, and items seized during the Indian Wars — and found herself facing the ruins of genocide. “How can we, as a country, legitimize the sale of spoils of war of a people who were decimated?” she recalled asking herself. Raised in conversation about culture and ethics with her father, Sackler was driven by a sense of morality. “The distinction for me was between cultures that are past and cultures that are in existence, and what is art,” she explained, speaking to the objects by adding, “This is not art.” In her first-ever auction bid, she won the masks at $39,050 and returned them to the rightful owners.

Her action was met with more money by mail, but also with letters from non-Native people hoping to better understand American history who wanted “some kind of reconciliation” with a people that have been suffering genocide for 500 years, she explained. The American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation was born, as was an American Indian scholar in Sackler, who was moved to earn her PhD in Public History.

A file photo shows Judy Chicago, with her 1974-1979 work "The Dinner Party" in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
A file photo shows Judy Chicago, with her 1974-1979 work “The Dinner Party” in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Sackler then started reading about architecture, which she learned to see as powerful artistic force and mused about building a new museum (she remembers a man telling her, “You talk about building museums the way most women talk about buying a dress.”). Her friend Chicago had been looking for a permanent home for The Dinner Party, her premiere feminist instillation piece that honors 1,038 women across numerous disciplines. “Then, I started to think about what it would be like to…have The Dinner Party in a space that was resplendent as [the piece],” she explained. “Putting it at the center of a center — not a gallery, but a place that would be a living organism.” She put together a list of every museum in New York, and another that listed the commitment a museum would have to have in order for her to work with them. “I wanted a commitment to take risks,” she explained – a commitment to women, community, education, dialogue, history, and the future. Groups like the Guerrilla Girls had been fighting for greater recognition of women artists and feminist art in galleries since the 1970s, “but the fact of the physical space and a center for feminist art being embedded in an institution makes for institutional change,” Sackler explained.

The Brooklyn Museum fit her bill and in 2007, doors to the 8,300-square foot Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art opened as home to the The Dinner Party, the Feminist Art and Herstory galleries, and an educational Forum venue. Sackler also pioneered the center’s First Awards, honoring women from Toni Morrison to Miss Piggy who were pioneers in their respective fields, and the Women in the Arts Awards, which most recently honored Marina Abramovic.

“It’s humanist. It’s feminist. It’s equality,” she said. “Our mantra is, ‘equal pay, equal wall space.’”

Elizabeth Sackler and performance artist/honoree Marina Abramoviç attend Brooklyn Museum's "Women In the Arts" Luncheon on November 5, 2015 in Brooklyn, New York. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Brooklyn Museum)
Elizabeth Sackler and performance artist/honoree Marina Abramoviç attend Brooklyn Museum’s “Women In the Arts” Luncheon on November 5, 2015 in Brooklyn, New York. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Brooklyn Museum)

The center was the first of its kind, ahead of the curve in a world that has since followed suit in attempt to properly recognize women’s contributions in art. “It was less than a month [after] opening that I had gotten reports from galleries in Europe as well as [the United States] that there had been an increase in sales of women’s art, and that they’d been pulling out feminist art and women’s art from their storage spaces that they hadn’t looked at in years,” she said. Under new director Anne Pasternak — as well as a majority female board — the Brooklyn Museum has pledged to continue its commitment to women: in honor of the center’s 10-year anniversary, the museum will review its collections, instillations, and labeling through a feminist lens in 2017. “On top of being the first with our line-up of women [in charge], we’ll be the first museum in the world, as an encyclopedic museum, to go through our collections with a gender lens,” Sackler said. She expects the event will bring about new understanding and context for thinking about ancient culture.

Aside from her extensive board duties, Sackler’s focus is now taken up by her most recent commitment: understanding and dismantling mass incarceration in the United States. She became involved in 2013, when she learned that spousal abuse was not an admissible defense for a woman who has committed homicide or murder, and immediately got to work. “I was reading everything I could get my hands on,” she said, citing Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stephenson’s Just Mercy as crucial texts. She held a one-day art workshop with inmates at the York Correctional Institution in Connecticut that became a six-month long art piece known as Shared Dining, in which the self-proclaimed “Women of York” dedicated The Dinner Party-style place settings to a woman of personal significance. (It’s now touring and will be going up in Baltimore.) Continuing her mission into the following year, Sackler started “States of Denial: The Illegal Incarceration of Women, Children, and People of Color,” a public program series that initially attracted help from advocates like Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman. Now, in what she describes as a post-Ferguson world, a broader audience of concerned citizens has joined her in the fight.

“How [the problem of mass incarceration] is going to resolve, if it will resolve, I don’t know,” Sackler said with concern. “I don’t know what’s going to come next.” But she vows to stay in the ring, advocating for people behind bars through her program “until we don’t need to have it anymore.”

Not because it’s a popular issue, or because she thought of the series first, but because her father taught her to stand up for what’s right. “That’s what you do,” she said.

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