Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen estimates that he has visited the home of Miami art collectors and patrons Marvin and Ruth Sackner at least a dozen times over the years. And every visit has been nothing short of an incredible journey through a treasure trove of words.
“The feeling was never that you were going into a museum or an art collection,” Ibargüen said. “It was like you were going on the web surfing and didn’t really know where it was going to take you; like being in a stack of books in a library.”
Over a span of four decades, the Sackners put together what is generally believed to be the world’s largest collection of word art. So when the Knight Foundation learned that Marvin, a retired pulmonary physician and inventor, was seriously considering parting ways with some of it, it made him an offer on behalf of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.
“We wanted to make sure that PAMM, as the city’s museum, was able to take advantage of it,” said Ibargüen, a former publisher of the Miami Herald.
As president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, Ibargüen approved the acquisition of more than 400 language-based artworks from the world-renown Sackner Archive of Visual Art and Poetry. The acquisition is a combined gift and purchase. The price isn’t being disclosed.
“One of the things that binds people to place are cultural offerings, and its personal relations and a culture that makes people of all kinds connect to each other,” Ibargüen said. “It’s a great archive, a great resource and it’s going to be in a great museum.”
The gift includes pieces featured in PAMM’s inaugural 2013 exhibition, “A Human Document,” and another 150 additional works selected by the curatorial staff. All will be unveiled at the museum in June as part of a new exhibition celebrating the acquisition.
PAMM’s acquisition is only a fraction — between 8 and 10 percent, Marvin Sackner said — of the collection. Sackner and his wife Ruth, who died unexpectedly in her sleep in October, put the collection together over 40-plus years. The couple also authored “The Art of Typewriting,” published by Thames and Hudson in 2015.
Inside the couple’s penthouse — where Ruth’s former walk-in closet exhibits shoes, jackets and purses with words and letters — yellow Post-It notes mark the works that will head to the PAMM. On a large table lies a small collection of books that will be donated to the Richter Library at the University of Miami.
“There are a few things I said, ‘You can’t take,’” Sackner said, referring to PAMM. “But basically I said ‘Fine, take anything you want.’”
Among the off-limit works of arts, a prototypical artist book by the innovative Greek-American Lucas Samara.
“He’s a very important artist of the 20th century with a lot of experimental vanguard work,” Sackner said. “In this collection, there are not that many artists’ [work] that I hold who are mainstream because you don’t go into a gallery and say ‘I am looking for concrete poetry, or visual poetry.’ You won’t find any; so most of this collection was built upon getting work from artists or poets, and then dealers, etc., but not from galleries.”
Sackner, 84, said he and his late wife had been working on parting ways with some of the typewriter art, artist books, micrography, mail art, experimental calligraphy and sound-and-performance work for at least the last decade. Most of his assets, he said, are in the collection and he had hoped to sell it in its entirety to a museum.
“Nobody could handle the size of the collection,” he said. “It’s really one-of-a-kind. It’s larger than what any museum had in terms of concrete and visual poetry, and words and image, which is what this collection comprises.”
Still, Sackner initially turned down the Knight Foundation’s offer to acquire parts of the collection because he was still hoping to attract a buyer for the whole body, estimated at more than 325,000 pieces.
“But then we just had to give up because nobody would take it,” he said, examples of contemporary typewriter works and 1980s era micrography by Italian artists hanging on two walls behind him. “It was just too big for them.”
Sackner finally decided in December to take the foundation’s offer.
“The collection was built in Miami and I wanted to see part of the collection, anyway, stay here for everybody to enjoy,” he said.
PAMM Director Franklin Sirmans says the collection “is a real treasure as far as Miami goes.” People, he said, have really related whenever the museum exhibited selections from the archive. Now that some of the pieces will be permanently at the PAMM, Sirmans said, he hopes people “come in and take a sustained look at a form of art that often comes from an intuitive place for many artists.”
“Most of the works in the collection are works on paper, a primal element to the art of creation,” he said.
Sirmans, who visited the Sackner home soon after arriving in Miami, said he knows “that the way collectors live with their work is very unique and special.” The museum, he said, will do everything it can to recreate that “wow” feeling one gets when walking into Sackner’s 5,600 square-feet penthouse and a second 1,800-square-feet apartment in the same building that’s being rented just to keep the art.
As Sackner led a brief tour of both apartments, he showed his visual memorization. He also displayed his knowledge of the pieces, some of which required a microglass to appreciate the tiny word art written in all of the major languages.
“I may find pieces when people ask me that I haven’t seen in 25 years,” he said. “I can remember practically everything I bought or was given to me.”
The pieces are tucked away in drawers, safeguarded in boxes and hung on walls inside his apartments. Some are even on display along the hallway leading to his penthouse. So far, he has about 60,000 records and estimates he has another 25,000 still yet to be cataloged.