Barbara Lee: Wonder Woman
Since the late 1990s, Barbara Lee has wagered her fortune on building a world-class modern-art museum in Boston and trying to get a woman elected to the White House. Will this finally be her year?
“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” That’s the question billboards screamed on New York City buses in 1989, in the same eye-catching yellow Lee later used for her foundation’s political guide. The activist art collective Guerrilla Girls created the signs as part of its continuing campaign, which included picketing museums in gorilla masks to draw attention to the low number of female artists on display. At the time, 85 percent of the nudes in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art were female, while less than 5 percent of the artists were women.
Less than a decade later, after her divorce was finalized, Lee was so inspired by a book about the 10th anniversary of the activists that she slowly began to shift her art collecting from, as she put it, “iconic images of women to iconic images by women.” As with politics, here was another realm in which women were judged by their appearance, rather than their qualifications, and another way in which women’s ideas were kept from the public.
Lee began accelerating her cultural donations—giving $350,000 to establish a new department of modern art at Harvard Art Museums, and contributing to a $1 million donation to endow a professor of art at UMass–Boston. The MFA, at that time, was less focused on contemporary art, concentrating its energy instead on promoting American art and Impressionism, so Lee pinned her hopes on the ICA to push modern art to the fore in Boston. “The other museums had been very steeped in history,” she says. “But I always believed the ICA made history.”
The museum had launched in the 1930s, around the same time MoMA and the Whitney opened in New York. While those institutions amassed their priceless collections of modern art, however, the ICA boldly chose not to collect—after all, how could you remain contemporary if you were filling your museum with works of the past? The museum thrived off its temporary exhibitions, reaching a pinnacle in 1990, when it drew large crowds for its controversial display of homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. But it had increasingly become an institution adrift. In 1973, the ICA had moved into an awkward space in a former police station on Boylston Street, where it staged a series of hit-and-miss shows. By 1998, admission had fallen from a high point of 120,000 to less than 16,000 a year.
Thanks to a cadre of benefactors, including Steve Grossman, Charlene Engelhard, Ellen Poss, and Lee, the museum hung on long enough to hire Jill Medvedow, a curator Lee had worked with at the Gardner. Together, Medvedow and Lee pushed to transform the ICA into a true collecting museum, convincing other board members to go along with the idea. Lee, however, was hardly finished. She knew the museum needed a world-class place to house its future collection, so she, along with Medvedow, put forth a vision of building a shining new ICA on the South Boston waterfront—a $51 million testament to glass and steel.
It was an ambitious project for an institution that was struggling to survive, and many critics publicly and privately scoffed. The idea could have easily died had Lee not stepped up with a $5 million gift, immediately silencing the naysayers and spurring others to give. It was a particularly bold move in New England, where giving tends to be done quietly and without fanfare. “What’s nice about [Barbara,]” says a local curator, “is she gives loudly and proudly, and that kind of attitude encourages more giving.”
Lee not only helped fund the new building, she also contributed one of its first works—a sculpture of delicate pieces of charred wood on wires by British artist Cornelia Parker. Named Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson), the artwork was assembled from pieces Parker salvaged from a wood shop that had burned down under suspicious circumstances— creating an eerie beauty out of tragedy. The piece is typical of the kind of work Lee collects. “I am very interested in art that has nuanced meanings, where the viewer becomes part of the art by developing their story about what the art means to them,” she says. “I’m never really buying something because it’s beautiful, but how it speaks to your heart and your mind.”
When the MFA opened a new contemporary wing in 2011, it did so with several seminal works that Lee helped acquire. The following year, when the Guerrilla Girls came to protest the museum, they had to modify their billboards, acknowledging that while the percentage of female artists at the Met had slipped to 4 percent, the MFA’s total had risen to 11 percent.
Lee has taken a similarly full-court-press approach to getting women involved in Massachusetts politics—not only with her checkbook, but also by forging coalitions and friendships to boost candidates. When Melrose school committee member Katherine Clark lost her race for state Senate in 2004, Lee’s call offering advice was one of the first she received. “[She said,] what is the next step?” Clark recalls. “That was a tremendous gift.” With Lee’s encouragement, Clark became a Democratic fundraiser, eventually winning in a race for the state House of Representatives. In 2013, the state party tapped her to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, and she won again, joining Niki Tsongas as one of only two female U.S. representatives from Massachusetts. “When a man loses an election, the community comes out to find him another important role [from which he can] position himself to run again,” Lee says. “We need more women in power who can help other women do that.”
One of the few knocks on Lee—who is frankly hard not to love—is that she exclusively backs women. “I don’t support women candidates just because they are women,” she protests. “I support individuals because I believe in them as people. It is not a gender decision whatsoever.” There is, however, some evidence to the contrary. In 2002, when her longtime friend Steve Grossman was running for governor, she jumped ship from his campaign when state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien entered the race. “I told him,” Lee says, “‘My life’s work was about electing women.’” (Grossman declined to comment on the incident for this article.)
For all the female candidates Lee has supported, however, there are also those who feel her sting. Another of her protégés, Michelle Wu, participated in two training programs Lee helped set up and later decided to run for Boston City Council. When she was starting out, Wu says, Lee’s “staff would sit and help me strategize. Calling Barbara’s office is one of the first things I [would] do on a number of questions.” Wu ran afoul of Lee, however, after she’d been elected to the City Council and declined to support an 11th-hour bid from Ayanna Pressley for Council president, voting for old-guard politician Bill Linehan instead. Wu insists she had already promised her vote to Linehan before Pressley entered the race, saying, “It was less an issue of choosing between Linehan and Pressley as much as it was about keeping my word.” Still, that didn’t stop Lee from scolding Wu in the press for failing to support the more-progressive candidate. “I have great hopes for Michelle’s other decisions in the future,” Lee says, sounding like a disappointed parent, “and I am hoping she grows into her potential.”
Spotting that potential and nourishing it is, of course, one of Lee’s great gifts, both in politics and art. When the new ICA opened in 2006, it seemed immediately prescient, credited with spurring development in a neighborhood that is now as full of cranes as luxury hotels and restaurants. Since its inception, attendance has soared to 200,000 a year, mostly on the strength of temporary exhibitions like a recent highly acclaimed show on fiber art. As for the museum’s burgeoning permanent offerings, “I would say it’s a small and nascent collection,” Medvedow tells me. “But it will be many, many years [before] it is large enough to really be able to define.”
That’s why Lee’s recent gift of 43 works by some of the world’s most iconic female artists is such a game-changer. The collection showcases Lee’s own artistic eye— focusing on themes of politics, war, violence, and injustice. Stainless steel chairs without backs by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo conjure images of political torture; a riotous sculpture by Brooklyn artist Rachel Harrison features a female mannequin wearing a Dick Cheney mask. “A great relationship develops between a supporter and a director,” says Paul Ha, director of the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, “and it really is a journey they take hand in hand.”
Of course, as Medvedow herself admits, without Lee there, the collection would not be where it is today.
Lee keeps a strict separation between her two worlds of politics and art. One curator told me that if she doesn’t meet with Lee by late spring, then she’ll have to wait until after the winter holidays, since Lee spends the summer on Martha’s Vineyard and then pours all of her energy into her political races through November. The Vineyard is Lee’s respite, the place she goes to rejuvenate. “ Everywhere I go people want to talk to me about politics,” she says. “If I am going to the supermarket—seriously. I work really hard, and I rest as hard as I work.”
Martha’s Vineyard is also where she met David Damroth, her “significant other” of almost 15 years. A contractor and former selectman living on the island, he met Lee before either of them had divorced, and the two bonded over their mutual love of nature and politics. Damroth sits on the board of Lee’s foundation, as do her two sons, Zach, a professional athlete, and Robbie, a professional musician. “It’s so important to have a male perspective and hear how men are looking at these issues,” she says. “Women will only achieve equality when men are part of it.” For many years, Damroth commuted back and forth to Cambridge as he pursued an associate’s degree in environmental management at Harvard; now it’s Lee who is more often doing the reverse commute to the island on weekends. “And yes,” she laughs, “I’m always looking for women to run for office on Martha’s Vineyard.”
One woman she knows well from the Vineyard, of course, is Hillary Clinton, for whom Lee has cohosted fundraisers on the island. As Clinton launched her own presidential bid in 2008, Lee emerged as one of her most visible supporters in Massachusetts, publicly declaring her the “most qualified” for president despite Barack Obama’s more-liberal credentials, and helping her achieve a primary victory in the state. Even before Clinton announced her 2016 presidential run, Lee had donated $25,000 to the political action committee Ready for Hillary.
Since 2012, the first full election cycle after the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision took the cap off super PAC donations, Lee has emerged as one of the most prominent and effective behind-the-scenes players in campaigns across the nation. So far, she has contributed a staggering total of more than $1.6 million—almost twice her contributions between the years 1998 and 2011 combined. Her totals for the 2014 election cycle put her in the top 50 of contributors nationally, and third among individual female contributors, behind conservative private investor Virginia James and Getty Oil heir and Democrat Anne Earhart. Some $300,000 of that has gone to Planned Parenthood, and almost $400,000 to Women Vote. But the largest amount—nearly $600,000—has gone to a super PAC called American Bridge 21st Century, founded by David Brock, the famously anti-Clinton journalist who had a Road to Damascus–like epiphany in the 1990s to become one of Hillary’s most fervent supporters.
Of course, Lee’s life could get complicated if Elizabeth Warren decides to enter the presidential race. Not only did Lee serve as a member of the liberal darling’s finance committee in the last election, but Warren’s unabashedly progressive politics more closely match Lee’s own. “I am a big fan of Hillary’s. I have known her both personally and professionally for a very long time, and I think she would make an amazing president,” Lee says. “I have also talked with Elizabeth and I love her and take her at her word that she is not going to run.”
If Clinton’s ascendancy to the Oval Office comes to pass—as the smart money in Washington is currently betting—then Lee will have played a big part in that outcome, not just in her individual support of her candidate, but for her strategic use of polling research and money to close the gap in gender inequality, carrying the torch for female candidates for nearly 20 years. “I hope [Clinton] will win,” says former Governor Granholm. “And I believe Barbara Lee can have a great glass of chardonnay and toast her efforts in helping to make that happen.”