2011 Honouree: Theresa Sackler

There is a problem that arises when trying to sum up what Theresa Sackler has done for the dozens of cultural institutions that she and her late husband Mortimer supported over than 20 years. Ian Dejardin, Sackler director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, frames the problem well. “It’s going to be difficult not to make her sound utterly saintly,” he says. Indeed it is.

Judged by the scale of her giving, Theresa is already be one of the world’s leading philanthropists. Even in London, the Natural History Museum, the Old Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Gallery, the Royal Opera House, Kew Gardens, the Royal College of Art and the Dulwich Picture Gallery are just some of the organisations that she supports through the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Charitable Foundation. Its work is also famous internationally. The Guggenheim, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York all have Sackler buildings.

What is so unexpected about Theresa, however, is how generous she also is with time. “Dulwich is a small museum,” Dejardin explains, “but she sits on the education advisory board, as well as the trustee board. She takes a personal interest, and there’s no faking that. She is just a model trustee.”

Indeed, whoever you talk to at any of the organisations that Theresa works with, you will hear the same story. Despite her immense influence, she strikes everyone as down-to-earth, enthusiastic and kind. Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery, remembers her first meeting with the Sacklers in the mid-1990s, when they had arrived to discuss the gallery’s renovation programme. “They came into my office, which was the former stationery cupboard,” she says. “We had lunch together, which was sandwiches, and we sat on 1960s red Habitat chairs with a very ropey table that was covered by paper like you have in a Greek taverna. They were completely captivating, and at the end of that lunch they agreed that they would support the project.”

And that support is still enduring. Last year, the Sacklers pledged the largest gift that the Serpentine had ever received, enabling it to win the contract to establish a new gallery in Kensington Gardens. The Serpentine Sackler Gallery, following a design by Zaha Hadid, will open in time for next year’s Olympics. It will be free of charge, and accessible to all. The project was of the last that Mortimer committed to before he died.

This project, in fact, is just one example of a clear theme that emerges from all of Theresa’s philanthropic work. Whether it is in the Sackler education centre at the Victoria & Albert Museum, or in the spectacular new spaces created by the National Galleries of Scotland’s Playfair Project, you can see her commitment to a simple idea: that art and culture should be for everyone, no matter how much or how little they can give.