Sara Vance

December 15th, 2010  |  Published in Profiles

Art Collector and Patron

Who does not have a collection? From Imelda Marcos (shoes) to Wayne Gretzky (coins), the urge to amass prized objects is widespread. When we fall in love with the tactile or the purely sensory, the things or events that talk back to us of their history, their beauty, their thrill, or their odd place in the flow of human evolution, then we want more, and more, and more, and the hunt is on.

Sara Vance’s enthusiasm for art started when the Cincinnati Art Museum became one of her clients. Vance grew up in Ripley, Ohio, a small town on the petticoats of conservative Cincinnati. Art was not part of her milieu or her education. Her college education, in fact, was in journalism with an emphasis on public relations and advertising.

Now, with over 24 years of media buying and planning experience, she presently runs SMV Media, a media management firm and also consults in marketing and creative strategy. Her list of clients is impressive and large.

She acknowledges, “I’ve been collecting all my life, one way or another: rocks, stamps, baseball cards. One difference now is that the things I collect, wine and art, cost a lot more. I have to be careful!”

Vance says of her initial exposure to the Cincinnati Art Museum: “That was the beginning for me!” The flame flickered to a blaze, as with the help of Phyllis Weston, she started buying. Her initial foray into collecting was grounded in Cincinnati artists recommended by Weston. And then contemporary art caught her eye and has held it ever since. Her collecting ran quickly to such artists as Jim Dine (b. 1935), Damien Hirst (b. 1965), Kiki Smith (b. 1954), Hannah Wilke (1940-1993) and Sue Williams (b. 1954).

Some collectors prefer to hide their collections and savor them in solitude. Vance is not one of them. “I believe art is for everyone, and my pie-in-the-sky hope is that someday we’ll have a public space to put the Vance Waddell collection so it can be enjoyed.” Michelle Waddell is her partner, and the two enjoy sharing their collection. “I think what the Rosenthals did by providing additional free entrance to the Cincinnati Art Museum is wonderful,” she adds.

Vance’s infectious warm personality infuses everything she does, and in counting the staggering number of boards on which she has served, one is impressed with the underlying theme of sharing and enriching the lives of others. Presently she is Chair of Artworks; President of Cancer Family Care; a member of l’Ordre Mondial des Gourmets Dégustateurs (wine), part of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs;™ on the board of The Ohio Arts Council; and on the boards of trustees of The Neuberger Museum (NY) and The Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center. She is a past member of the boards of trustees of the Contemporary Arts Center and the Cincinnati Art Museum.

An only child, Vance had an enviable and special relationship with her mother, who moved from a nursing career to being a talented entrepreneur running several businesses. “I’m a lot like my mother in many ways.” Vance says, “While the art my mother collected was limited to her favorite, John Ruthven (b. 1927), I want her legacy of generosity to continue.” After Patricia A. Vance died, her daughter established the Patricia A. Vance Foundation Endowment for Education and Community Outreach (now The Sara M. and Michelle Vance Waddell Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation) that gave as one of its first gifts an entire wing named in her mother’s honor at the Cincinnati Art Museum, as well as additional monies for community outreach. It also provided the sixth level of The Contemporary Arts Center with The Sara M. and Patricia A. Vance Education Center, the “UnMuseum®” for children. Similarly the foundation is helping with the renovation of the Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for the families of patients of the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Avondale as well as to FACE (For Aids Children Everywhere) and has also contributed to 4C for Children, a local child care resource and referral agency. A special feature of the Ronald McDonald House renovation is the Star Tower, a beacon of light that is visible to the children, signaling where their parents are staying.

Vance’s board participation is focused. “When I go on a board, I want to know why they want me. If I can’t roll up my sleeves and contribute, then it’s no good. Anyone can give money, but art should not be elitist. I want to work.” She adds, “Mark Harris, Director of The School of Art at The University of Cincinnati, did a great thing. He invited three of us collectors to go to the studios of the graduate students and help teach them how to deal with collectors.” The business part of artists’ careers can be difficult for them, and Vance enjoys this type of participation and assistance.

When collecting, Vance makes quick and decisive choices. “I say ‘Put a sticker on it!’ right away. I don’t go home and think about it. Phyllis (Weston) says I have an uncanny eye. I just wish I’d had that in my late twenties and early thirties! Now, I can even pick artists from the Internet, and I’m pleased with what I get.” What advice, then, would she give to people starting to collect now? “I’d tell them to look for young artists—local, national and international—they feel are going to grow. If you buy everything from emerging artists, you can afford it,” she answers.

“Contemporary art is hot in New York. I just live in a town where it has yet to emerge on a wide scale, but that’s the direction art is going, and I enjoy it. Keeping an open mind is important.” Talking about her passion for contemporary art, Vance feels it needs explanation, context, for it to be fully understood. “I like challenges, and contemporary art is challenging. When I show people around the Contemporary Arts Center, I don’t show them the toughest thing out of the box, and I always have a curator explain it.” Vance thinks the Contemporary Arts Center did a good job with the Shepard Fairey benefit, because “There was lots of press; people understood; and people came. Understanding is critical. Why is it art? Even I need this.” This attitude is counter to the advice given by writers such as Tom Wolfe and Jeannette Winterson, who lean towards the “let art speak for itself” school. For Vance, background is essential and enriching.

Has Vance tried her own hand at art? “I am creative,” she concedes. “I write, but anyone who is my partner in the game of ‘Pictionary’ is out of luck!”

– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin



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