Saskia D’Aguilar’s love of art has brought her to where she is today. She is the director of the D’Aguilar Art Foundation (DAF), responsible for the art collection of her late father-in-law Vincent D’Aguilar — one of the largest and most important collections of art in the country.
Her journey to the Foundation is not what you would call predictable.
Saskia is not an art historian or a formally trained artist, although as a teenager she wanted to study art in university. Her background is in the world of high finance, advising hotel developers and business owners.
But even the sober advice of a father to his teenage daughter, to pursue a more sensible career, could not prevent what almost seems serendipitous, a life surrounded by art.
Saskia, a Dutch citizen, born in Switzerland, came to The Bahamas via Asia. She moved to Taiwan at the age of five, and 10 years later her family moved to Singapore. She attended university in the U.S. and worked in Los Angeles and New York before finally settling down in The Bahamas with her husband, well- known businessman Dionisio D’Aguilar.
It was in Singapore — with a bustling tourist economy — that Saskia decided to pursue a career in the hotel and tourism sector.
She ended up studying hotel administration at Cornell University in Upstate New York but soon realized there was something about the program that might not be a good fit.
“I figured out that when you’re in the hotel business you would be working every weekend and nights, so by the time I graduated I said, ‘well I am interested in the hotel business but I am not interested in those hours’,” she recalled with a laugh.
After graduating, Saskia said she was “extremely fortunate” to find a job in Los Angeles with a consulting firm that advised hotel chains and developers on the best places to develop hotel properties.
From L.A., Saskia landed another plum job, this time with the Meridian hotel group in New York, where she rekindled her friendship with her old Cornell schoolmate Dionisio.
Settling down in Nassau proved to be challenging at a time before Spousal Permits with the automatic right to work existed.
To pass the time while she waited for her permit to come through (it took five years), Saskia started volunteering at the Bahamas Humane Society, at the urging of Betty Kenning, its founder (and her in- laws’ neighbor).
“She said, ‘come on, you’re going to meet nice people there. You’re going to make a big difference’. And she was absolutely correct,” said Saskia.
“It was the best job I ever enjoyed.
“I was from a world of high finance, and here I was washing puppies, de-fleaing them, helping out in the operating theater, scrubbing cat kennels. It was extremely rewarding.”
Saskia is still involved with BHS and has chaired the Society’s biggest fundraiser — the Bahamas Humane Society Ball — for the past nine years, raising $40,000-$70,000 every year.
During this time, Saskia also worked with Ernst & Young in its Consultant Division, advising local businesses.
In 1996, she was snatched up by Graham, Thompson & Co., after working on a consulting project with the law firm. And in 2008, 12 years later, she decided it was time to “retire”.
“I left to pursue more philanthropic ventures,” Saskia explained.
And like most exciting things that have happened in her life, running the Foundation “happened upon me”, according to Saskia.
An enthusiasm for art Saskia shared her father-in-law’s enthusiasm for art, which she had held in her heart since high school.
“When I was in high school I really wanted to study art in university. I loved art. I took AP art and art classes like ceramics and watercolor. I was passionate but my father quite lovingly said, ‘you love it but you’re not that good’.
“Only someone who really loves you would tell you that. He said, it’s not that easy to make a living to support yourself. You are above average but you’re not absolutely exceptional. And I don’t want my children to be struggling.’
“I think these were wise words from him. He was an engineer and very practical and I valued [those words] and I know he spoke from the heart. It was realistic advice.
“He said, you can always have art in your heart and as a hobby. No one can take that away from you. He was right. He knew me well.”
Many years later, Saskia was at her father-in-law’s side, encouraging and cheering him on as he purchased works from a wide variety of established, unknown and up-and-coming artists.
“Vincent used to go to all of these art openings and I would go with him. I met a lot of artists that way. While the rest of the family would be rolling their eyes, when he brought another piece home I would be like ‘fabulous, well chosen, I love it’. But the rest of the family didn’t quite get it,” Saskia said. “It was an inside family joke.”
After Vincent D’Aguilar was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Saskia promised to help him organize his collection, which at this point was stored in what was probably one of the worst environments for a valuable collection of art — a beach cabana at his waterfront Cable Beach residence.
“We couldn’t get a grasp of what he owned, what it was worth, was it properly insured, were the paintings in good condition,” said Saskia.
Using photographs of every piece in the D’Aguilar collection, captured by staff at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, Saskia began to establish a database of the artwork.
It took her an entire year.
“I took every image and put in all the basic information, the year, medium, country, artist, press clippings etc… and assigned it a catalogue number and category.
“I worked on it every single night after I put my kids to bed. For one year. And while doing this, it was a huge education for me,” she said.
The collection is an important one. It reflects bravery and is cutting edge. D’Aguilar in his choices was ahead of the curve. The work captures aspects of the unheard Bahamian narrative, such as the works of Kendall Hanna, Amos Ferguson and Joe Monks, among others.
It also possesses historical context and has organically developed an agenda seeking the provocative emerging artists. The collection has galvanized the country’s best artists’ careers, from Brent Malone to Lavar Munroe.
Saskia knows her father-in-law’s collection inside and out. She knows it so well she can identify a sliver of a Kendal Hanna painting used on the NAGB’s website, which she notes that the Foundation is not getting credit for and promises to correct it immediately.
The Foundation was officially launched shortly after Vincent D’Aguilar’s death. The restoration of an old Bahamian family home on Virginia Street, just down the hill from the NAGB, not only solved the problem of how to properly store the valuable art collection — now at 900 pieces and growing — this important collection of work can now be shared with local and visiting art enthusiasts.
In addition to preserving and building on the collection with the help of Vincent D’Aguilar’s wife, Marina, the Foundation has a program that provides artists with the opportunity to experience art outside of The Bahamas. DAF also supports the Junior Residency Program at Popopstudios International Center for the Visual Arts.
The Foundation’s success has allowed Saskia to make a name for herself in the local art community outside of the well-known family she married into.
Her philanthropic interests extend beyond the art world and the humane society.
Saskia co-founded the Western Warriors Soccer Club. Soccer is another of her passions, as of course are her sons, Alexander and Oliver, who inspired her to form a soccer club for residents of the west who were forced to travel east if they wanted to play. Both of her sons are keen soccer players.
Saskia describes herself as a ‘surrogate’ soccer mom to some of the club’s Gambier Village members. In fact she and her husband are making it possible for one of those members to attend college in the U.S. The pride shows in her eyes as she tells of his 3.1 GPA, and his success on the basketball team that just clinched a championship.
For her passion for life, Saskia credits her parents. They exposed her to the world through travel, and always pointed out the beauty that they saw in everything.
Ask her just about anything, and it shows.
The Nassau Guardian
Published: April 16, 2012