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Aperture Honors Fred Smith (1942–2017)

Memories of the late Aperture Foundation trustee.

Aperture-Benefit-2012_Fred-Smith

I first took note of the voice—booming, self-assured. Then, a quick glance: polished, suit and tie, sitting next to me at the counter at Novitá, extolling the virtues of George W. Bush to the hostess over lunch. This was in 2004.

When he went outside to smoke, I shared with the hostess my own opinions of the president, which were far at the other end of the spectrum. The tall, sharp-featured, fair-haired man came back in, heard about 25 per cent of my diatribe, and in that sonorous voice demanded, “Who are you?” We started talking, or perhaps politely bickering. I discovered he was interested in photography, and had once been a subscriber to Aperture—I was the magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time. This earned him some points, for sure. He discovered that, like him, I had gone to Yale. This apparently earned me some points. As he got up to leave, he challenged me to send him a recent issue of Aperture: “Fred Smith. Park Avenue.” I laughed at that. And then, just before the door closed behind him, the chaser: “I’m the only one.”

I sent Fred Smith of Park Avenue some issues—carefully chosen issues, featuring political content that would, I was certain, provoke him. Some days later, he called me, this time extolling Aperture’s excellence (but making it clear he was not in complete agreement with our content). He proceeded to generously offer a financial contribution to the magazine. (We had, after agreeing to disagree as far as Bush was concerned, already discussed Aperture Foundation’s financial health. He knew that this would be welcome.). I told him perhaps he shouldn’t offer his money until he really knew and understood what he was giving to. He should come in, meet people, see our books, see what we really do, everything we do . . . and then we could take it from there.

At that point Fred was at Credit Suisse and Aperture was more or less around the corner, on Twenty-Third Street at the base of Madison Avenue. Shortly after, he came in and met the team. And this was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Fred Smith and Aperture Foundation.

As a trustee, Fred did not just want to support Aperture financially—he made this very clear to me in our early discussions.  He wanted to really engage, to share his remarkable talents and perspective. He wanted to give his most valuable possession—his time. We needed, and soon came to depend on his input, no question about that. And I like to think that, in some way, Aperture benefited him, too. He seemed to have fun working with us, and we could always count on Fred’s clarity and honesty.  Over more than twelve years of collaboration, Fred became an invaluable member of our family. Intelligent, judicious, ethical, articulate, open-minded, and present, Fred was not remotely censorious, understanding and believing in our strict church/state separation between funding and editorial content. I quickly came to learn that his politics were not as one-sided as they’d seemed on the day we met, when I had wanted to throw my water at him at Novitá. His mind was always open to new ideas, and he was a fervent believer in human decency, in equal opportunity.  He was an uncompromising supporter of Aperture’s mission; indeed, I think he cared about it as much as the staff does. And in turn, Aperture’s staff loved, respected, and appreciated Fred Smith. He was truly “the only one.” He will be greatly missed.

Melissa Harris, editor-at-large, Aperture Foundation

Cathy-Kaplan_Chris-Boot_Fred-Smith

Fred Smith was already on the Aperture Board when I joined. As I got to know my fellow Board members Fred seemed an anomaly, a self-proclaimed non-photography person on a Board of passionate collectors. But that self description was deceiving. Fred had, through his association with Aperture, developed a respect for the history and role of photography and a love of certain photographers and had even built a small, very personal, collection of photographs. Although Fred came to Aperture after a chance encounter with then editor-in-chief Melissa Harris, he only joined the Board after study and from a sense that he could help Aperture in a significant way through his financial expertise. Fred treated his role as Treasurer with the same intensity and care that he applied to the financing transactions that he worked on during his years as an investment banker. After I became Chair of the Aperture Board I spoke to Fred frequently, consulted with him on decisions and valued his wise input.

Fred was a true humanist. He cared about the role Aperture played in the world, and the importance of the visual image. He also cared about the people who worked at Aperture. He would stop by the office frequently to check in, he knew everyone who worked there and he formed deep friendships.

In the weeks since his death, many of Aperture’s Board members have expressed how hard the news of Fred’s death hit them and how much they will miss his calm and rational presence at our meetings and how they will especially miss his deep, reassuring voice. Fred was a huge presence at Aperture.

Cathy Kaplan, chair, Board of Trustees, Aperture Foundation

Fred-Sitting

I first met Fred in 2010 when interviewing for the position of chief financial officer at Aperture. Prior to the meeting, I had reviewed the interviewers’ bios, many of which were impressively long and detailed. In contrast, Fred’s was brief: Fred Smith, Banker. The man behind the bio was equally succinct, direct, and unvarnished. During the interview, he asked penetrating questions and listened carefully to the answers. By the end of the interview, I felt strongly that here was someone with whom I would like to work. This conviction was confirmed tenfold over the following seven years as we worked closely together and became—I like to think—friends.

Fred brought wisdom and perspective to all of our interactions and projects.  One of his greatest gifts was his uncanny power to distill the most complex ideas into a few simple sentences, providing clarity and direction to both Board and staff.

Although clearly knowledgeable and influential in his role as Treasurer and Finance Committee chair, Fred never pulled rank on anyone. He respected and trusted the staff’s knowledge and listened carefully to our input. He was also crystal clear about the difference between Board oversight and staff execution, which freed us to do our jobs, albeit within a clear policy framework.

Fred approached everything he did with dedication and enthusiasm. Although by profession a financier, he was passionate about music, books, his family, the English language, Aperture, and, of course, golf and politics, not necessarily in that order.  Fred loved to test ideas and theories, loved to debate, loved to be challenged and learn new things.  I can still hear him hoot with laughter when someone poked an indignant hole in one of his theories; or see him cock his head and concede, “Well now, that’s true”, when shown an alternative way to approach an issue.  He was extraordinarily open to learning and growing, and as a result seemed perennially young and engaged.

One of my favorite memories of Fred is from Aperture’s 2014 gala. With the dinner and auction over and the tables cleared, the band’s decibel output had increased to the point where a number of the older patrons had begun an orderly rout. Not Fred. Surrounded by his children and their friends, he leaned back in his chair, pounding the table with his fist in time with the rhythm, a huge grin on his face. I do believe he closed the place down.

I miss his frequent calls (“Hi, MC, just checking in to see how things are going”), his calm, clarity, and financial acumen, his humor, and his steadfast devotion to the Aperture cause. We all miss him more than words can express.

Mary Colman St. John, chief financial and administrative officer, Aperture Foundation

Chris-and-Fred

I first met with Fred Smith during interviews for the job of executive director at Aperture, in 2010, along with the then recently-appointed Chief Financial Officer, Mary Colman St. John. In the hour or two we spent together, I learned that Aperture’s finances were being looked after by sound minds and good people, and that we really liked and immediately trusted each other. Since then, apart from the couple of weeks each year that Fred disappeared to Jamaica to be with his family and play golf (always scheduled so as not to interfere with his commitments to Aperture), I worked with Fred every week. He became one of the most important business partners of my working life, parsing and re-imagining of Aperture’s economics and playing a key role in charting the institution’s path forward.

Fred was devoted to Aperture, but, unlike other supporters and trustees, wasn’t consumed with interest in art and photography. Or so we thought. Later on, I came to know him as a man of great taste and artistic judgment, but he never let that show, nor interfere with good organizational decision-making. Why did he bother? It took a while for me to understand that his devotion was a decision of heart and mind. As a retired banker, with considerable talents and experience, he needed a project to occupy him. He chose us because we believed in something and because he liked us. And having made the decision, he applied his wise counsel to our affairs for however many hours necessary, week after week, for over a decade. Thousands of hours. He scrutinized every detail of our activities and took time to understand our economics at a granular level, which he in turn interpreted to our other trustees, responsible for the organization’s governance.

Aperture’s history is publicly characterized by great artists—Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, among many others; by the charisma of its former directors, Minor White and Michael Hoffman, and its editors; and by the leadership of its Board chairs. Although I don’t think most people engaged with Aperture beyond our Board knew the name of Fred Smith, yet he was central to Aperture’s story, and has shaped it. We will miss him terribly.

Chris Boot, executive director, Aperture Foundation

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