Klaus Biesenbach and Sarah Arison on What It Means to Be a Philanthropist in the Arts

The granddaughter of YoungArts Foundation founders Ted and Lin Arison, Sarah Arison carries on their mission to nurture emerging artists as chair of the organization.
The granddaughter of YoungArts Foundation founders Ted and Lin Arison, Sarah Arison carries on their mission to nurture emerging artists as chair of the organization.

Sarah Arison is one of those people who turn privilege into a vocation in a way that is both humble and inspiring. In addition to serving as the vice chair of MoMA PS1 and a board member at the Museum of Modern Art, where I am honored to work with her every day, she is also the chair of the National YoungArts Foundation and on the boards of the New World Symphony, American Ballet Theater and Americans for the Arts. At only 33 years old, she is already supporting the next generation of artists by creating connections among the organizations and people who share her vision.

From the moment we met on Instagram, we shared an immediate affinity, not just because of our work with emerging and innovative artists but also our shared educational background—we both were pre-med before changing course. Sarah sat down with me to discuss her path to the arts, her philanthropic vision and how teens are changing the world.

What was the moment you decided to dedicate your life to the arts? I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college, planning on going to medical school. I went to a YoungArts benefit with my grandmother—not because I was interested in the organization, but because I wanted to spend time with her. One of the parents came up to me and said, “I have to thank you and your family for everything you’ve done for my son. When he came home from school he would draw instead of doing his homework. Seeing him recognized and mentored by the greatest artists in the world, I see that this can be a future.” In that moment, I realized what arts organizations could do not only for artists, but also for the perception of the value of art and artists in our society. I knew that unless someone from the family got involved, YoungArts would not grow. The next morning, I went to my grandmother and told her I wanted to join the board. The rest is history. I never looked back.

That’s a beautiful story of how passion jumps a generation, but also how strong your grandmother’s legacy is. I have been so influenced by her generosity of spirit. Growing up with that was very inspiring, so I feel honored to continue what she did, but also very motivated because I always want to ensure that I’m continuing her legacy appropriately.

You are still so young. What are your life goals? I’m interested in seeing how the arts community can work together at a time when resources are very limited and constantly threatened. One way is through collaboration. Organizations working together can offer more support to artists. Maybe we identify a great young talent in high school through YoungArts. We provide a program that can change the course of their life and help get their education started, and then maybe we pass them off to MoMA PS1 where they have their first show. Or if they’re in dance we pass them off to American Ballet Theater. Creating a strong network of support that can take an artist through their lifetime, then perhaps they turn around and become a mentor to a young artist themselves. Working so closely with MoMA and MoMA PS1, I want to be like Agnes Gund. You look at Aggie and what she has done over decades for so many artists and institutions. She’s changed the world, and it wasn’t enough— now she’s started the Art for Justice Fund. It’s her relentless desire to help people and make the world a better place that I admire and aspire to.

Thinking about YoungArts artists and teenagers in general, what can they contribute to our world today? The young artists we work with are able to take in what’s going on in the world around them and respond in a unique, thoughtful and eloquent manner. They’re able to make us see things differently, show us what the world is like for them and how they experience it.

What do you consider to be the role of art in our society? Artists chronicle the social changes in our world. As creators, they experience things very intensely and respond in their work. I think art being made today captures the challenges and conflicts of our times. While it may be a difficult time, I think artistically it’s a rich and prolific one.

Do you have artists that you consider role models? In the current political and social climate, there are a lot of artists who are taking on the seriousness of what’s going on in our country. Hank Willis Thomas is one of them. He is not only an artist, but an activist with For Freedoms. I love that right after the 2016 election, MoMA PS1 was able to find a space where he could engage with the public. People really needed to get together and exchange their views and opinions in that moment.