This Big Museum Donation is About Bringing More Visibility to Women Artists

Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art has been around for over 75 years to expose, educate, and inspire Boston residents and visitors. But despite the museum’s extensive exhibitions, performances, film features, and adult and family programs, some art collectors see clear-cut room for improvement.

One such collector is Barbara Lee, a prominent Massachusetts philanthropist and art collector. Lee recently donated 43 works completed by female artists to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, including works from Cindy Sherman, Tara Donovan, and Louise Bourgeois. These donated works of art are estimated to be worth more than $10 million.

On a personal note, Lee has been professionally working to get women elected to office since the early 1990s. She’s a former teacher and social worker that has championed women’s representation and recognition. Lee also happens to be the founder and president of the Cambridge-based Barbara Lee Foundation, which specifically aims to advance women in contemporary art and politics.

“One of the most important stories of our time is the story women tell,” said Jill Medvedow, the art institute’s director. “Their representation has greatly improved [in the art world], but it’s still not excellent. Ours is excellent.”

For many years, the institute showcased only borrowed works. But since 2005, it started building up a permanent collection as well. Lee’s $10 million gift expands the museum’s permanent collection to about 185 works of art. She’s been a member of the museum board since 1990.

In giving $10 million worth of female-produced art, Lee’s goal is to build a targeted collection and inspire other collectors to donate pieces as well.  She envisions a museum with a strong female focus that inspires affection for women artists among museum goers. Considering that Lee’s donation of 43 works now constitutes nearly a quarter of the museum’s permanent collection, her influence certainly won’t go unnoticed.

“That’s when I understood the significance of not just art history, but of people’s attachment to and interest in art of our times,” Lee said. “That’s such an important part of the ICA. Boston is steeped in history, but the ICA is about making history.”

To learn more about the Barbara Lee Foundation, check out the foundation’s Partnerships and Programssection. But be forewarned, the foundation has an invitation-only application process and doesn’t accept unsolicited letters of inquiry.