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Frieze New York 2023

Sarah Arison Will Never Sell a Living Artist

The Chair of YoungArts discusses her 'very personal' collection in relation to her passionate commitment to patronage of young artists and performers

BY Sarah Arison AND Sara Harrison in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 15 MAY 23

Sara Harrison I wanted to begin by asking you about YoungArts, an organization founded by your grandparents just over 40 years ago. Could you tell me about the work you do?

Sarah Arison So my grandparents founded YoungArts in 1981, and the impetus was that my grandfather had wanted to be a concert pianist, and he did not find the support from his family, the educational community or the community at large. Their response being, 'go get a real job.' When he reached the point that he was able to give back, he wanted to create something so that no young, talented, aspiring artist had the experience he had. He wanted them to have the resources they needed to pursue an education and a career in the arts and so, my grandparents founded YoungArts.

Sarah Arison in her home in New York, March 2023
Sarah Arison in her home in New York, March 2023; photograph: Caroline Tompkins

For decades, the organization was really focused on that first critical juncture in a young artist’s life, from high school to college, when they are having to decide where they’ll go to school, what they’re going to study, and if they have the scholarships and financial support to pursue that. There really was not —and honestly is not— another organization that addresses that early critical juncture across all ten artistic disciplines: performing, visual and literary arts. Every year, approximately 170 of the most accomplished young artists from across the country, in all disciplines, come to Miami for National YoungArts Week — a week of masterclasses with luminaries in each field. So, Mikhail Baryshnikov might do Dance, James Rosenquist the Visual Arts, and Renée Fleming Voice. These young artists have an opportunity to meet and collaborate with artists of other disciplines and then they receive cash awards from us.

SH And five years ago you took over as chair. What changes have you implemented since taking on that role?

SA So, since I took over as chair, we’ve been a lot more focused on the lifetime of an artist. We really want to identify these young artists as we always have done, amplify their potential and then invest in their lifelong creative freedom. And in terms of a lifetime of support that means everything from mentoring, networking and community, to funding and providing physical space. But one organization cannot do all of that. So, while YoungArts remains unique in working with artists across all disciplines, there are wonderful organizations out there focused on particular fields, that are addressing critical junctures and have been doing it for decades, and are really phenomenal at it.

So, I started setting up cultural partnerships, and a great example of that is Sundance. About six years ago, Sundance launched the Ignite program, which was for filmmakers aged 18 to 25. I said, we have the greatest filmmakers in the country, aged 15 to 18, can we funnel them into your new program? This way, they are going to the best possible place they can. It has become about creating an ecosystem—working together to support artists at different points in their lives with their different needs.

On wall: Taryn Simon, Poolside, Tel Aviv Mini Israel, Latrun, Israel, 2007, in the home of Sarah Arison, New York, March 2023; photograph: Caroline Tompkins

SH So, for Film you’ve partnered with Sundance, and for the other disciplines, who have you collaborated with?

SA With Dance, we’ve partnered with Jacob’s Pillow. In the visual arts we’ve done shows at MoMA PS1. For music, we work with the Musical Instruments Department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. We collaborate with Joe’s Pub in New York and the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. We also have some artist residencies, like Fountainhead Arts in Miami, Florida.

SH Beyond this you are President of the Arison Arts Foundation, and serve on an incredible number of boards.

SA Yes, so, Arison Arts Foundation was founded by my grandparents to ensure the continuity of the two bodies they founded, YoungArts and New World Symphony, which they set up in 1987, which is the largest training orchestra for young people in the US. So, it is in my capacity as President of Arison Arts Foundation that I serve on all the boards that I do, which right now total 11!

SH That’s really a lot! How do you balance that? In terms of fundraising, I imagine you are often contacting the same individuals or companies that are aligned with the arts.

SA I think one of the good things is that I serve on boards that are across disciplines: whether it’s President of the American Ballet Theatre, or MoMA and MoMA PS1, or the Lincoln Center. People ask, aren’t they constantly competing with one another? But my favorite thing to do is to find the synergies between organizations and figure out how they can work together, because we are in a field where resources are so limited. Through collaboration, organizations can save a lot of time, money and energy, and also increase the impact that they can have.

SH Obviously you got a lot from your grandparents in terms of your involvement in philanthropy and role as a patron. How did they influence your own journey as a collector, and how has that evolved?

SA I was very influenced by my grandparents, but also by Aggie [Agnes] Gund, who is another huge mentor for me. I don’t even necessarily consider myself a collector all the time. But first I have nothing in storage, so everything is on my walls, and I also follow Aggie’s rule of never selling a piece by a living artist. My collection is a history of my life and career, and my work with all of these organizations and all of these artists. I would say about 95% of the works that I own are by artists who I have worked with closely, including YoungArts alumni or YoungArts mentors, or people that have shown in Greater New York at MoMA PS1. So, it’s a very personal collection. I really love that with every piece there’s a story behind it, and that, in many cases,I met the artist when they were very young, and I’ve been able to follow their career.

John Baldessari, Big Catch, 2016
John Baldessari, Big Catch, 2016, in the home of Sarah Arison, New York, March 2023; photograph; Caroline Tompkins

SH You obviously support far more artists than you can collect. What’s the impetus that makes you want to take that step and own something by them and live with it?

SA People ask me all the time, what should I buy now? What’s a good investment? But you can’t think of it in that way. If that’s the way you think, go buy a poster, have it framed and call it a day, because you should not be collecting art. But I do say, buy what you want to live with, buy what you want to see on your walls. Every piece that I have I fell in love with, or I felt like it was a very important moment in the life or career of the artist, or a body of work that was reacting to important times.

Also, so many not-for-profits use art as fundraisers, and Aggie’s organization, Studio in a School, is a great example. They only do a benefit every five years, but they do sell works: this year, they had a Martin Puryear print; a couple of years ago one by Teresita Fernández; and before that one by John Baldessari. I’m not going to buy an original Baldessari, but I can have a fantastic print and know that it’s going to support an organization that does brilliant work.

SH And have you made any acquisitions recently?

SA I bought a piece by a YoungArts alumnus named Mark Fleuridor and also something by Derrick Adams, who is an amazing artist, a YoungArts board member, mentor and dear friend, who curated a show of Mark’s work on the YoungArts Campus last year. Also, at the UNTITLED fair in Miami this year, I bought a piece by Jean Shin, who is a wonderful artist— also a YoungArts alumna and mentor, and on our board. She did an incredible project in Olana, near Hudson, about the hemlock trees that have been cut down. I had been up to visit it, and then in Miami a gallery had some smaller works related to this project. Also, I recently bought a Sadie Benning, who was an artist I first saw in Greater New York at MoMA PS1, ten years ago. I fell in love with her work then, and I bought a piece from her last show.

Sara prison
Sarah Arison in her home in New York, March 2023; photograph: Caroline Tompkins

SH You’re in Aspen right now, and you grew up in Miami, but most of the time you’re in New York. I wondered what took you there and what anchors you there still?

SA Anybody in their 20s who wants to be in the thick of it—whether it’s in art, finance or fashion—pick a field and New York is one of the global centers. It’s not an easy place to live, so people who move there are driven and engaged, and really want to accomplish something. It was fun moving there at 22 with a lot of my peers. We were working across law, medicine, finance, art, fashion, everything, but we were all in the same energetic, sometimes frenetic, often very difficult environment. The amazing thing about New York is that every day and night, there are dozens of things to experience in dance, theater, visual arts and film. The hardest thing is always having regrets about something that you missed.

Recently I was just at the Wangechi Mutu show at the New Museum, which was phenomenal. We have the Daniel Lind-Ramos show opening at MoMA PS1 soon, which I am so excited about, and Lauren Halsey opening on the roof of The Met, which I cannot wait to see. Then there’s American Ballet Theatre’s upcoming spring season. Also, now with my girls—my oldest is about to be four—her first Lincoln Center performance was at six months old. This is something my grandparents gave to me: I think it’s really special to be able to bring kids up in New York and for the arts be a part of their everyday life, so they feel that museums and theaters are totally accessible and somewhere they feel comfortable. So, that is what I love about New York. I do not love it with a stroller in the snow. Then maybe I miss Miami. But the energy, the creativity—everything that you can see there is just so special.

SH Lastly, the art world can be fairly daunting. Do you have any advice for young collectors?

SA There are a lot of museum groups that are great about offering studio visits and gallery visits. Being part of a group can take out a little bit of the intimidation factor. At MoMA PS1, we have the Greater New Yorkers; at MoMA, there’s the Junior Associates, and so on. Even doing gallery walks, whether it’s Chelsea or the Upper East Side or the Lower East Side. Or Tribeca now, where I live, has amazing galleries. Go in! The gallerists are there to talk to you. Get on the mailing list. And if you’re not in New York and don’t have immediate access to all of this, one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that museums and galleries got much better about their virtual offerings. You can listen to talks, do online studio visits. But in the end, I think it really is about going to the galleries and the fairs, and speaking. The gallerists are so excited to talk about the work that they’re showing.

SH And any top tips for things to combine with a visit to Frieze New York?

SA Well, just ten blocks south or less from The Shed are all the galleries in Chelsea, which is great. So, you can start at the fair and then head down to them. And for a bite to eat Orchard Townhouse on tenth between 24th and 25th is very good. They have fried radishes, which sound really weird, but are phenomenal.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2023 under the headline ‘Young Hearts Run Free’

Main Image: Zoë Buckman, The Fucking Master, 2019, in the home of Sarah Arison, New York, March 2023; photograph: Caroline Tompkins

Sara Arison is a patron and collector. She serves as President of the Arison Arts Foundation, Chair of the Board of YoungArts and MoMA PS1, and Board President of American Ballet Theatre. She is a trustee of institutions including Americans for the Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, Lincoln Center, MoMA, New World Symphony and the Americas Foundation of the Serpentine Galleries. She lives in New York, US.

Sara Harrison is a freelance editor. She lives in London, UK.