Art For The People

Local art collector Sara Vance Waddell shares her collection of prominent feminist art

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click to enlarge Sara Vance Waddell
Sara Vance Waddell


go with my gut,” says Sara Vance Waddell about her philosophical approach to collecting art. And it is clear that trusting her instinct has done her well as the marketing and advertising CEO/president of her own media business.

The collection, which Vance Waddell describes as “hardcore contemporary — the edgier the better,” is filled with important works of modernist and, more recently, contemporary feminist art that she has been amassing over the course of the past 14 years.  

The very first piece of art that Vance Waddell ever bought was much different than anything she currently collects, however. It was an impressionistic Frank McElwain painting, which she got from Phyllis Weston at Closson’s, because, she said, “I wasn’t exposed to contemporary art back then.” And she describes the pastel figurative landscape as “beautiful — but that’s where my head was back then — and I’ve done an about-face since that day.”  

Although she still regularly solicits the work of Cincinnati-area artists, Vance Waddell has more recently honed her sights on feminist contemporary art. And her evolution has been quick, validated by inclusion of her loaned artworks in international exhibitions, and largely self-propelled.   

Vance Waddell doesn’t work with an art handler, as many other big-time collectors do. She usually contacts artists directly and lets them guide the acquisition. Although some artists do direct those who want to purchase their work to contact their respective gallery representative, often Vance Waddell will get the chance to pick the artist’s brain and learn as much as she can about the piece from the artist’s perspective — and this seems to be her favorite part of the exchange.

“I call myself an artist groupie,” Vance Waddell jokes, before getting more serious. “Honestly, art has brought so many cool people into both our (Vance Waddell and her partner Michelle’s) lives … getting to go to the openings and seeing the work you have in a museum — it’s kind of cool.”   

She also has knowledgeable friends — and potential resources for information — such as former Contemporary Arts Center curators Thom Collins, Matt Distel and Justine Ludwig.

Vance Waddell served as president and chair of the board for ArtWorks for more than a decade and has been on the board for the Ohio Arts Council for the past five years, so to say that she dedicates a lot of time to the endeavor and is exposed to a lot of talented contemporary artists would be an understatement. But it’s a far cry from the woman who grew up in the small town of Ripley, Ohio, and didn’t step foot into an art museum until she was in her thirties.

“I just got bitten by the bug,” she says. And it’s clear that she intensely enjoys the spirit and discovery of contemporary art. The self-professed “obsessive personality” reads copious online material on the subject (she’s especially partial to Huffington Post) and admits that once she gets entrenched in something she really believes in, “it’s full steam ahead.”

Vance Waddell’s collection includes so many iconic, important pieces of feminist contemporary art (including pivotal works by critical artists like Janine Antoni, Louise Bourgeois, Deborah Kass, Carolyn Mazloomi, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman and countless others); she clearly knows what she’s doing.  

Just a few years ago Vance Waddell and Michelle loaned out an Ellen Gallagher piece to Tate Modern for inclusion in the artist’s first major retrospective in the U.K. 

“I don’t collect to do that type of thing,” Vance Waddell says. “I collect what I like. If it ends up being a prominent piece, that’s awesome.”  

But the proverbial point for the Vance Waddell and Michelle, however, is to share this kind of “edgy” artwork with those who (like Vance Waddell herself some 20 years ago) might otherwise never be exposed to this kind of contemporary art. And with that aim in mind, they have loaned artwork to such local educational institutions as Miami University, the Art Academy and Wright State, in addition to the bigger institutions like the aforementioned Tate.  

“We almost always loan work out because my philosophy is it should be seen by as many people as possible,” Vance Waddell says.

Her hope and concern for the future of her art collection is almost maternal. In fact, she confesses, “It’s so important to me, it’s almost like a child.”

“I would really love the bulk of our collection — especially the feminist stuff — to stay together and be in a place where it’s appreciated and it’s shown; not put in storage,” she says. However, she also doesn’t see any local institution that might be a good fit for the grouping of works by female artists who didn’t shy away from such controversial topics as women’s reproductive freedoms, institutional misogyny and LGBTQ rights.

“Can you see those little docents [at the Cincinnati Art Museum] trying to explain Interior Scroll?” she says with a slight chuckle.  

The aforementioned oversized Iris print that is in the Vance Waddell collection documents a performance by Carolee Schneemann in which the artist withdrew a narrow scroll of paper from her vagina and read aloud from it. And while that same print is in the collection of internationally renowned art institutions, Vance Waddell clearly doesn’t have faith that the work wouldn’t just end up in storage if she were to donate it to a local museum.


“I want this collection to make a difference when I’m not here,” she says. “There are certainly things that I have that could be split up, but the feminist art that I have needs to stay together and there’s a lot of that. … It tells a story and needs to stay intact.”

“As far as collecting as a hobby, this is why I know I’m where I should be,” she continues, referring to a Dasha Shishkin piece that she owned prior to the artist’s exhibition at the CAC in 2012. The museum had no knowledge that the piece that was used as the central exhibition image was actually owned by someone in town — the collector wasn’t on the board there at the time. But it was clearly a large validation for Vance Waddell. And she is quick to clarify that her interest in this kind of art is largely internally driven. 

“First of all, I’m enjoying it,” she says. “I smile every time I think about art.”

Photographs from SARA VANCE WADDELL’s collection will be included in Exposure, a FotoFocus exhibition on display at Wright State University’s Robert and Elaine Stein Galleries, Sept. 2-Oct. 12. More info here.

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