Sara Vance Waddell is an art evangelist, spreading the gospel about the underappreciated female artist

By Betsy Ross, Contributing Writer
Photos and Videos by Madison Schmidt

When Sara Vance Waddell shows visitors around her art gallery/home in Indian Hill, it’s easy to see the passion with which she collects, displays and yes, gives her own personal audio tour of her collection. Rotated twice a year, the paintings, sculpture, performance art pieces and the like all showcase her favorite subject: The female artist.

Her passion to promote creative women has now become a new initiative for The Carnegie Art Gallery in Covington, part fundraiser and part educational program, and given her new opportunities at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  

But it’s a long way, literally and figuratively, to the New York art scene from Sara’s birthplace in Ripley, Ohio, a journey she never envisioned. 

With the exception of a few John Ruthven paintings that her mother enjoyed collecting, Sara didn’t grow up with art or visiting museums. 

It wasn’t until she was hired as a media buyer for the Cincinnati Art Museum some two decades ago that art became part of her life. 

“Going to the museum for meetings and walking through the Great Hall, walking through galleries and seeing the art, it did something to me. I can’t explain it, it just happened. And at that point I decided to start being philanthropic, and made a donation to the museum in memory of my mom.”

The donation led to invitations on both the Art Museum board and the board of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). 

Having never been exposed to contemporary art, Sara was drawn to the variety of subject matter: Politics, sexual orientation, gender identity, for example. 

“I collect difficult work,” says Sara. “I don’t have too many pieces of work where you go: ‘That’s so beautiful.’ I hear the words, ‘it’s powerful, it’s riveting, it makes you think.’”

She had a connected and smart guide to help her navigate the contemporary arts scene when she began collecting in the late 1990s. Thom Collins, who served as the chief curator of the CAC when the Zaha Hadid building opened in its current location, began introducing Sara to artists in Cincinnati and New York. Collins is a leading American museum director and currently serves as the president of the prestigious Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

While there is no formal database or list of art collectors focusing on female artists, Sara hopes her collection will inspire other collectors. 

Collectors are competitive. So what’s her biggest ‘get’ so far in the collection? 

Sara will quickly answer: “Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.”

According to an essay on the artist’s career: “Forty years ago on August 29, 1975, the thirty-six-year-old artist Carolee Schneemann pulled a scroll from her vagina. The performance, titled “Interior Scroll,” is an essential moment in performance art history, and an important milestone in the artist’s provocative and influential oeuvre.”

And what doesn’t she have that she’d like? 

“Perhaps a (German-born American sculptor) Eva Hesse piece.”

Sara is a rarity in the art world, in that her focus is on female artists.

Which brings us to The Carnegie and the female-centric programming Sara is helping launch. 

The “Art of She” was launched last week to support The Carnegie Gallery, an idea conceived by the Carnegie’s Katie Brass after a visit to Sara’s gallery. For $500 a year, the donor and a guest will be invited to two events each year focused on female artistic expression, which could range from visual arts, culinary arts or the occasional cocktail art.

The first event hosted by Sara in her gallery welcomed 50 guests who enjoyed a food demonstration by Chef Renee Schuler of Eat Well Celebrations and Feasts and a cocktail demonstration by Molly Wellmann of Wellmann Brands.

Interested in joining? Email Katie Brass at

Sara’s arts world is about to expand to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, again, with a focus on women artists. 

Cincinnati now shares Sara’s heart and art with New York where she and her wife, Michelle, have a second home.

She actively loans her art to museums and galleries for exhibitions. Curators started to take notice of Sara’s private collection. One curator from MOMA took particular notice and sent Sara a letter inviting her to join an acquisition committee called the Modern Women’s Art Fund, revived to help the museum acquire works of art by women for the MOMA.

It’s an opportunity for Sara to help curate the next generation of acquisitions for MoMA’s female artist collection, something she thinks museums can do better. 

Note to museums from Sara: “If there are museums that are acquiring women artists, I’d love to know about it because I’d be right there.”

Jackie ReauCULTURE