Interviewed by Dr. Anu M. Mitra and featuring art from the Vance Waddell Collection
Sara Vance Waddell is one of the foremost collectors of art by women and artists of color, including those recently incarcerated. Her Midwest-based art collection is significant, and she routinely loans her work to important museum exhibitions and collections all over the world. But this road was neither linear not explicit. It unfolded through a series of serendipitous occurrences, of being in the right time at the right place and trusting her intuitive judgment to take her to the next step. Today, she devotes her waking hours to the art of bolstering her collection and lending her resources to philanthropic work steeped in just social action. But in the beginning, she began as the owner/president of SMV Media, a media management company that did public relations/media planning work with Cincinnati-based organizations and companies. Here are excerpts from my recent conversation with her and my comments on Sara’s leadership style that she brings to the table.
What are your first memories of art? What inspired you to turn to art more deeply?
I grew up in rural Southeast Ohio. Although my family was loving and nurturing, art was never part of the curriculum, and I was never exposed to it. We did not grow up talking about art or admiring an artistic piece. I went to college at Morehead State University, majoring in journalism, and I really didn’t think about art till the Cincinnati Art Museum became a client of mine. Jackie Reau, the then Marketing Director at the Museum, hired me to do media planning for the art museum and I came on board. Being in the museum for meetings forced me to look around. It is safe to say that I had never been to an art museum till I was in my 30s. Around the 2000s, when I was doing my job, I got bit by the art bug and decided to formalize my approach to learning about art. I joined art boards and learned on the job by meeting world-class mentors such as Phyllis Weston, Carl Solway, and others, whose thinking guided my actions and sharpened my intuitive judgment.
Why contemporary art?
When I first started collecting around 2000, I was eclectic and all over the board. I didn’t know how to settle down into an area of focus that I was passionate about. Around that time, I was directed to Closson’s Art Gallery in Cincinnati to see Phyllis Weston and so I did. In a short time, she became my art mentor and I looked to her for guidance. I had hungry eyes and I collected everything—from Impressionists and Old Cincinnati Artists to the Modernists. Realizing contemporary art was my passion, I joined the board of the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. I went on to do board service at the Cincinnati Art Museum and became their Acquisitions Chair. I developed a fondness for contemporary art because it was inscrutable to some extent. You always had to scratch away at the surface to gather more information and to make sense of what were suggestions on a canvas or a sculptural form. As well, I like engaging with living artists; I could meet with them, talk to them, develop friendships with them to understand their work and the times with more fullness. I am also a firm believer in supporting local talent and building local enterprise. I began collecting art by living artists who were primarily local in scope to support them, in addition to building depth with national and international artists. I also began focusing on art by women and people of color. As a sub-genre, this collection was largely undeveloped and so I had the opportunity to get in early. True to my suspicions, I found that this group of artists was neither appreciated nor valued in the marketplace. I took it upon myself to change the narrative and redress this wrong.
It is safe to say that contemporary art forces me to engage with the urgent political questions of the day. My interest in feminism and art, transgressive politics, and interdisciplinary thinking are by products of decades of informal leaning of artistic practices and how one can use art to lead change in the social arena.
Eventually, I went on to become more involved with Cincinnati and Ohio-related arts organizations: ArtWorks, and the Carnegie, in Covington, Kentucky (a performing arts and education center in a historical space). A friend from the political arena, Barbara Gould, steered me to become Governor Ted Strickland’s electee to the Ohio Arts Council and subsequently to the Ohio Citizens for the Arts. I met talented and sharp people like Donna Collins, the head of the Ohio Arts Council, who introduced me to the Ohio Advisory Group of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
When my wife, Michelle, and I bought a New York City condo it helped fulfill my hunger for contemporary art, I knew that I would have to extend my reach beyond the state of Ohio. Thom Collins, who had just exited the CAC and the Cincinnati Art Museum, was then the director of the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY, and he brought me to their board. I chaired Neuberger’s Acquisitions Committee for several years; and then through a series of fortuitous events attracted the attention of a curator from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I had become immersed in collecting art by women and artists of color. I was most interested in hearing the voices of underrepresented and marginalized peoples. It became my mission in life to agitate on behalf of whole groups of people that are made invisible by their skin color, belief system, or way of life.
At MoMA, I joined the Women’s Fund Committee, and their Committee on Media and Performance. Through PPOW Gallery, I was taken on an artist’s studio visit to see Carolee Schneemann’s home in New Paltz, NY. The Carolee Schneemann Foundation had just been formed, and people on their board were chosen by Carolee. I came to serve on their Board and was just named Board chair recently.
Best advice that you ever received?
The best advice that I received was from Cincinnati great, Carl Solway, who was a renowned art dealer. He advised me to “focus on the work of one’s own generation rather than artists who were dead.” Very early in my career as a collector, I began collecting art by contemporary women and artists of color. I love the diversity of artists, the issues that they choose to focus on, the depth that they bring to the conversation. My gallery, a space of about 1500 square feet in my Jose Garcia designed home in Indian Hill, Ohio, is devoted to showcasing women and artists of color who make a difference through their artistic medium of choice. Since 2015, school groups, university students, art groups, museum groups, women’s groups, all come through to tour the collection. I am proud to say that my art provokes reflection leading to social action. I want to create difference through responsible, thoughtful social activism. I want to provoke change in how our democratic systems function. I want to leave boards, artist’s groups, regions, states, and national entities better than when I found them.
Don’t be afraid to speak up for what you feel is right. Take a stand even if that is the hardest thing to do. You will only make a difference if you try to push that needle. Collect what you like, and not for its blue-chip value. Be true to who you are.
Dr. Mitra’s comments on Sara
Sara is an example of a citizen leader or a leader who leads from the back of the pack. Through the process of slow, gradual work, she demonstrates that transformative social change from the back of the room is instrumental in shifting the narrative. She does this by changing the underlying biases that exist in deep-rooted ways within society.
- In Sara, we see an important component of leadership coming into play—rather than just lead or just follow, she has chosen to go beyond these constraints and instead focus on outcome: one’s contributions to the greater good. She does this by bringing greater attention to the plight of the LGBTQIA+ populations, those formerly incarcerated, to people of color, and to animal rights causes everywhere. When she centers the art of the marginalized, Sara is:
- moving the needle from the Western understanding of leadership as a prize to showcasing how leadership plays out at as service to humanity. In this way, Sara brings leaders and followers together as they work toward a common goal. Leadership thus becomes a function of social trust and an opportunity to serve a greater cause. Her actions simply transcend her individual desires to promote the interests of the collective.
- As a social entrepreneur, Sara addresses the challenges facing her community and she develops creative solutions that will address social needs. This is an example of collaboration among diverse players who contribute to the greater good. The injustices that she views in society fuels her commitment and forces her to take focused, collective action.
- Sara focuses on the community’s social capital, which is defined by Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein as “social networking, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance, and trustworthiness.” Putnam and Feldstein also articulate two types of social capital—bonding and bridging, where bonding refers to the linking of people who are similar and bridging to the linking of people who are dissimilar. Sara does the harder of the two by bridging groups of people and raising awareness. In this way, Sara integrates her ideas of what a leader is by commingling her most authentic self with the values of the community in which she lives.
Dr. Anu Mitra is a Professor in the Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Studies program at Union Institute & University and facilitator of the Design Thinking and Museum Studies Certificate Programs.