Ruth Sackner didn’t only collect art. She lived it.
Every inch of the Miami condo she shared with her husband, Marvin, was covered with pieces from their art collection, which was all about words.
“I love living in a museum,” she said a few years ago in a short video about the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. “In fact when we drive up in our driveway we always say, ‘Home, sweet museum.’”
The collection wasn’t confined to their condo. In 2013, hundreds of pieces from the Sackner collection were put on display at the just-opened Pérez Art Museum Miami in an exhibition called A Human Document: Selections from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry.
Ruth Sackner, along with her husband, amassed more than 75,000 pieces of word art, making it the largest collection in the world. She died in her sleep Saturday at 79.
Her husband of 59 years said after they ate a roast beef dinner Saturday night and watched Barton Fink on Netflix, he turned to her and said: “Ruth, I love you.”
“I didn’t say it every night, but I said it last night,” he said. “And she said, ‘I love you’ back.”
When he returned from his early morning walk on Sunday, she wasn’t in the kitchen as usual. Instead, he found her in bed where he left her.
“This was just so unexpected,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like she is gone.”
Ruth Sackner was born on March 14, 1936, in Philadelphia. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English.
But before graduating, she met Marvin. Marvin Sackner said he first met his wife-to-be when his friend went on a blind date with her.
About six months later, he saw her at a restaurant and he realized “how beautiful she was.” After asking his friend if it was OK, Marvin called and asked Ruth on a date.
“It was a whirlwind,” he said.
They were married in June 1956. Together the couple had three children. In 1964, they moved to Miami Beach because Marvin, a pulmonologist, became the chief of pulmonary disease at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
In addition to a successful medical career, Marvin Sackner also invented medical devices, giving the couple “play money,” he said.
Both were interested in art. In 1974, a retrospective by Tom Phillips, a multidisciplinary British artist, in Basel, Switzerland, raised their curiosity in visual poetry.
That’s when the collection began. In a 1998 Miami Herald article, Ruth Sackner explained that by combining text and visual arts there was “an extra dimension.”
“I was interested in color early on, but it didn’t hold my interest,” she said at the time. “I felt there had to be more of a message. I needed help, you might say, and I liked the idea of a story. I liked paintings with narratives, so in some aspects this was for me another step in that direction — here I had a narrative, literally.”
The couple — and their collection — became well-known in the Miami art community.
“Miami lost, today, one of its real cultural giants,” said South Florida art collector Dennis Scholl. “Ruth was one of those people who really cared about culture in our community. Together they built the greatest collection in the world. That is a hard thing to do.”
When the couple moved from their Venetian Island home, where they lived for 32 years, to their Miami bayfront apartment it took four months because they had to figure out where all the art would go. In the end, they were able to fit more than 600 pieces.
Visiting the Sackners was always an experience, said Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a former Miami Herald publisher.
With art all around, “there was barely room for a bed,” he said.
Ibargüen said the two were “inseparable.”
“I can’t remember seeing one without the other,” he said. “They collected together, they presented together, they did everything together. It was an equal partnership.”
The two had just completed a book, The Art of Typewriting, and were planning on speaking at Books & Books at the end of the month.
In addition to her husband, Sackner is survived by daughters Sara Sackner and Deborah Goldring, son Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein and brothers Samuel and Daniel Karsch.
Services are pending.