Susan Sollins died on October 13 and changed the lives of all who knew her. It was such a sudden loss -- startling, saddening, totally unexpected. Susan was a person who planned and scheduled, who thrived on the day-to-day demands and deadlines that made her multiple accomplishments possible. Minute to minute, on the air, at events, while interviewing and writing and filming, Susan was always present. We are so used to her presence, to the way she lit a room, offered creative insight, kept things serious and forward moving, found the next big idea and made it public.
Susan's lifelong dedication was to promoting contemporary artists and their work: first at the Smithsonian Institution, where she worked as an educator and a curator; later as the co-founder of Independent Curators Incorporated, now Independent Curators International (ICI), the nonprofit organization that provides exhibitions and events celebrating artists; and then, most famously, as the creator and producer of ART21, or Art in the Twenty-First Century, the award-winning PBS documentary series. Through her work Susan channeled visual artists to wide, welcoming publics, which might otherwise not have known them. Her imagination led to ongoing, original experiments in public outreach for the arts.
There have been six full seasons of ART21, and the seventh just premiered on October 24. In all, there will have been 136 interviews and commentaries and dozens of ancillary offerings about artists. Susan's first long documentary, on William Kentridge, aired on PBS in 2010 and earned a Peabody Award. In the ART21 world, artists are heroes, and stars, and teachers, and newsmakers, and friends... thanks to Susan. As curator, critic and ICI Board Chair Patterson Sims has said of Susan, she was "a singular, amazingly prescient, and maverick leader of the art world. Susan's vision has been a source of constant inspiration. She was the Vasari of our time."
ART21 is not only a PBS series. It is much, much more. Susan turned online into an institution. She and the organization provided the series, and also short format documentaries, news about the arts, archival and print repositories, screening guides, classroom materials, and shopping, reading and viewing opportunities of every kind. She focused on visual art, on creators she knew and admired. But actually Susan created the first full-length, full-time, permanent digital storehouse on a single subject. She was a visionary and protector of art, but she was also a pioneer in digital production and education.
The tribute most essential to her, to her remarkable career in the visual arts, would be its continuance -- the ongoing offering of exceptional artists, adding to the illustrious list: Rackstraw Downes, Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, Alfredo Jaar, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Julie Mehretu, Elizabeth Murray, Bruce Nauman, Shahzia Sikander, Nancy Spero, Do Ho Suh, Sarah Sze, Kara Walker, William Wegman, Fred Wilson... and 120 more, so far. These artists are premiere talents of our time, great tellers of our tales. Susan has given them to all of us. Through Susan, artists tell us about themselves and, through her, we learn about the tremendous impact of art and artists on our lives and times. What the artists achieve, and what Susan offers are, quite simply, enduring. They are gifts to us forever.