Ruth Sackner, Miami Art Collector and Patron, Loved Words Like No One Else

Ruth Sackner, left, was a powerful force in Miami's art scene.
Ruth Sackner, left, was a powerful force in Miami's art scene.

In the Winter of 2013, I interviewed Ruth and Marvin Sackner for The Miami Rail in anticipation of a show of word image art pieces from their collection at the grand opening of the Perez Art Museum Miami. The interview is here, but in my mind the most important thing said that day was Ruth’s reply to some of my snark when the recording was not running.

We’d been formally introduced a year or so earlier by my dear friend Matthew Abess, a curator at the Wolfsonian. During the interview, I noticed a binder dutifully filed above an office desk with his name on the spine. Matthew had worked for Ruth and Marvin years before landing the gig at the Wolfsonian and in playful jest, I made a crack about what sort of silly nonsense was included in the “MATTHEW ABESS,” binder.

I can’t remember the exact phrasing of what she said, but it was something along the lines of the following, delivered with a slightly mischievous smile: “Oh, you don’t think there’s a folder of your silly nonsense somewhere here?”

It was a perfect Ruth Sackner moment: she made me laugh, made me feel good and validated everything I had ever done. It was one of the few moments in my life that gave me the confidence to continue writing, something she constantly encouraged in me. And for that I owe her a debt that can unfortunately never be repaid.

Ruth made people around her feel alive and proud to be present, proud to know her and fascinated by the world of collecting and objects that she shared with her friends and family and others. She died in her sleep on Friday evening and Miami is definitively a worse place without her. As is the rest of the planet. But it is a life worth celebrating.

Ruth Sackner slept on sheets of words and adorned herself with text whenever she could. Every available square inch of their apartment is covered with letters, typescript, writing, words in image, etc. There are words on the toilet paper, shower curtains, font blocks under the stairwells and micrography fruit bowls. With her husband they compiled one of the largest word image collections on the planet. You cannot study concrete poetry seriously without knowing The Sackner Archive. It’s a bit hard to speak about Ruth without Marvin, but together they were nothing but an inspiration and lived lives draped in unalloyed sincerity.

We first met at the very first Bookleggers Library event at the now closed Lester’s Café in Wynwood in 2012, where the Sackners arrived early and became the first organization to ever donate to Bookleggers. Ruth had read a Miami Herald clipping on the project and loved the idea. It’s hard to properly place how cool I think it is that they were at the very first Bookleggers. But it was special. Bookleggers has since received several donations from the Sackners in the last three years, always of top-shelf books, and always with a personal invitation and a loving chat.

Every time I saw her, Ruth mentioned the latest article I had written, however surprising it felt to hear her tell me how much she enjoyed it. She gently pushed me for more, asking me more than once when she’s going to see the book I have never written. I look back on that interview and remember Ruth telling me about my own folder of silly nonsense in the Archive because every step of the way, whether with Bookleggers, or my writing, she validated my work and gave me strength.

I haven’t published anything in a month, much to the increasing aggravation of everyone who employs me. I have no explanation for this slump, which is eons long in the internet newscycle. But it feels right — in humble homage — that this piece breaks that slump. Ruth would have encouraged me, cared and prodded me gently with a joke, while giving me the faith I needed to once again trudge on, forward, with her perpetually glowing smile.

Ruth I am sorry you never saw that book, but I know you are somewhere, completely surrounded by other books you love, and people you love and those who love you.

There are lots of us. 

Nathaniel Sandler is co-founder of Bookleggers Mobile Library, which gives free books to Miami at regular pop-up events around town.


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