“Art makes it possible for us to have empathy.” This is an especially important reminder right now as issues of social justice continue to be at the forefront of our conversations and arts organizations across the country struggle to exist.

These words are from Agnes Gund, an art collector, philanthropist, and extraordinary human who, in 2017, sold one of her most treasured paintings and used all of the proceeds to launch the Arts for Justice Fund. This nonprofit provides grants to artists and advocates whose work focuses on safely reducing the prison population through art with the aim of changing the narrative around mass incarceration.

In AGGIE, a 2020 Sundance Selection now playing in our Virtual Movie Palace, we see how this was just one act among many in Agnes Gund’s long career of curating modern art, educating youth, and elevating women and artists of color.

Director Ava DuVernay opens the film with the inspiring words, “Art requires imagination, and justice does as well,” which is an appropriate way to introduce this exemplary case study of how one person can creatively use the resources at their disposal to make change.

In the first shot of the film, after we’ve been introduced to Agnes Gund and her background, we see her on camera for the first time as she’s asked a question by the director (and her daughter) Catherine Gund: “What do you think of this film?”, to which she responds, “I hope that the film will not be seen by too many people.” It’s a funny thing to tell the person making the movie, but it’s a line that reveals her honest and humble nature, and in these moments you will see why the film is called “Aggie”, a nickname she’s referred to both by those in her close circle and the art world.

It’s these funny juxtapositions that give this documentary character and keeps it honest. While Gund is praised by many and characterized as “one of the great firefighters for justice”, in private she reveals a self-deprecating personality and seems to be unaccepting of these beliefs. Rather than interviewing Gund directly for material, the film instead features a series of dual interviews with its subject in conversation with fellow artists, advocates and friends like John Waters, Xavier Simmons and Thelma Golden.

AGGIE is both a personal celebration of Catherine’s mother, but also an objective view of an active crusader who may be a role model for all. The film connects the dots of her accomplishments and accolades, while still finding time to project her as a positive maternal figure.

At the same time, the film provides an exhibition for the artists and friends that Gund has supported over the years. As the President Emerita of MoMA, founder of Studio in School which has taught art to millions of young students, and proud member of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) since the 1980s, her career has touched and supported thousands of other artists. And in this documentary, which beautifully gives her story life and humility, we can see there are hundreds of more stories to be told within, from voices that are just waiting to be heard.

Following this documentary, another terrific film about art and activism is Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (available from the Ann Arbor District Library), focusing on the Chinese artist and activist. And next week, be on the lookout in our Virtual Cinema for Resisterhood, which is a powerful documentary about activism and the women working tirelessly to preserve democracy and fight for civil rights in America. And this weekend at the State, we’ll be opening On the Rocks, which is not a film about social justice or civil rights, but a film from Sofia Coppola who I would say is one of the freshest filmmakers of our time, and perhaps can serve as a positive relief from the antagonizing headlines of today.

Have a great week and see you soon!


Nick Alderink

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