Sondra Farganis

“Breaking the rules, taking risks comes at a price,” says Sondra Farganis, Director Emeritus of both the Vera List Center for Art and Politics (VLC) and the Wolfson Center for National Affairs at the New School (WC).

Dr. Farganis was a draft resistance counselor during the Viet Nam War. In her oral history interview for the New School Archives, she told stories that revealed her toughness regarding criticism from the left and the right because she remained open to dialogue on divergent viewpoints. Soon after Bob Kerrey arrived at the New School as its new President in 2001, the New York Times reported that he had led a Navy Seals commando team on a raid of an isolated peasant hamlet called Thanh Phong in Vietnam’s eastern Mekong Delta in 1969 in which at least 13 unarmed women and children were killed. Farganis told of losing dear friends at the Graduate Faculty after leading a public discussion with Bill Hirst, professor of psychology, and Bob Kerrey at the New School to discuss Kerrey’s being a Navy Seal. She found herself in a controversial position in the midst of the debate about Kerrey’s war service. Farganis insisted that he not be called a war criminal when many others insisted that he should.

Dr. Farganis’ affable personality, intellectual acuity, and undeterred efforts to excite a continuing dialogue concerning American democracy, found a friend in Vera List, a longtime benefactor of The New School. The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School was founded in 1992 and named in honor of the late philanthropist.  Farganis, in her conversations with Vera, spoke of the difficulty of running “a society where you have two competing values of liberty and equality . . . .” She further discussed the many financial gifts from Vera which endowed the VLC with the resources necessary to carry on Farganis’ work. She quoted Vera, “I want you to be able to do the kind of Art and Politics or Sustaining Democracy stuff that you can only do if you have a large endowment.”  In remarks written by Farganis and presented in her absence at the 20th Anniversary of the VLC she wrote, “. . . to say that the VLC started with a conversation with Vera List is to say that it was answered, initially, by asking what would Alexis de Tocqueville have said. For I think it fair to say that he would have pointed to the distinctive-ness of America and its being the harbinger of what a new democracy would look like.” You can learn more about the VLC here.

Farganis identifies herself as trained in social and political theory, and her own political views are rooted in the left progressivism of the 1960’s. In her work at the VLC she conducted programs that used conflict, controversy, and crisis as a means of advancing American ideals. One entitled “Sustaining Democracy” featured Jon Karl, currently ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent, whose views she described as rooted in the right/centrist conservatism of the 1980’s. Two programs with Philip Yenawine, former Director of Education at The Museum of Modern Art from 1983-93 — “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Art,” and “Fears, Phobias and Taboos” – brought that critical approach to the art world.

In the aforementioned VLC 20th Anniversary remarks Farganis concluded, “Breaking the rules, taking risks comes at a price, so does being critical of the past, but less so of the present or the future. Being silent may be the greatest mistake of all.” Farganis made good on this promise in the hundreds of programs she developed at the New School, all to bolster democracy and promote debate.

The full audio recording and transcript of this oral history are available on The New School Archives’ digital collections site.