It might have been the urinal turned upside down into a fountain. Or perhaps it was Nude Descending a Staircase. But more likely all of the art at The Armory Show in New York made an indelible impression upon a young Barbara Lee in 1963. That show, a recreation of the watershed 1913 Armory Show that catapulted Modernist art onto the American scene, galvanized Lee. “That show was saying, ‘I want to look at the world in new ways,’” Lee recalls. “It sparked an enormous dialogue about what is art and what art should be.”
Nearly 50 years later, Lee is an indomitable force propelling contemporary art forward in Boston and across the country. She is the founder of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which supports programs that advance women’s equality and representation in politics and the arts. A core mission of her foundation is to elevate female contemporary artists by offering grants and making the exhibition and publication of their work possible. “Women are over half of the population and an underrepresented majority in museum collections and on museum walls,” says Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art. “Lee feeds big ideas, new ideas and people in particular.”
A trustee at the ICA, Lee helped guide the museum from its tiny Boylston Street location to its gleaming cube on the Boston waterfront, where it now presents exhibitions gaining international notice. “I see contemporary art as a civic endeavor,” Lee says. “The ICA does a great job in making art understandable and accessible.” Lee points to recent ICA shows featuring the street art of Shepard Fairey and the tattoo art of Dr. Lakra as work resonating with broader audiences. Then there’s the whirling frenzy that is Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), the annual contemporary art show that Lee has visited a number of times. “There’s an enormous energy there. So many wonderful artists to see and so many interesting shows outside the fair itself,” Lee says.
Only in its ninth year, ABMB has already become the can’t-miss hot spot for art collectors (not to mention the Hollywood A-list and Bacchanalian partiers stumbling back to Ocean Drive hotels at the first glimpse of the sun). Medvedow says ABMB triumphs for what it fosters: “Contemporary art is a community of individuals who care deeply about the arts, ideas, creativity, a sense of consciousness in the world and frequently about one another.” At ABMB there are countless artistic awakenings, not unlike those that once captivated a young Barbara Lee at The Armory Show. Art Basel Miami Beach runs December 2 to 5. For more information, visit artbaselmiamibeach.com.