By KATE TAYLOR - Estrellita Brodsky’s life is not that of your typical graduate student. Instead of frugal dinners of ramen or grilled cheese, there are $1,000-a-head museum galas. Home is an apartment on Park Avenue, not a share with roommates in Brooklyn. And although she is hoping to finish her dissertation, which focuses on Latin American artists in postwar Paris, by January, Ms. Brodsky is not planning to enter the academic job market any time soon.
Instead she is devoting more and more energy these days to figuring out how to use her wealth and connections as one of the city’s leading arts philanthropists, along with her scholarly perspective gained from her studies at New York University, to raise the profile of Latin American art in museums, the academy and the international art market.
For two years Ms. Brodsky has endowed the post of the Latin American art curator at the Museum of Modern Art, held by Luis Pérez-Oramas. Her encouragement led Harvard to create a position for a Latin American art specialist in its history of art and architecture department. Currently she is in discussions with the Harvard Art Museum about financing Latin American acquisitions as the museum moves into collecting contemporary art.
In a sign of her growing prominence in the field, Ms. Brodsky presided on Thursday as chairwoman at the opening night of Pinta, a Latin American art fair in its second year, which runs through Sunday at the Metropolitan Pavilion and B. Altman Building in Chelsea. (Last year the chairwoman was the collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a trustee at MoMA.)
Mauro Herlitzka, a co-director of Pinta, said Ms. Brodsky was an obvious choice not just because of her prominence as a collector, philanthropist and society figure — she is married to the real estate scion Daniel Brodsky, who is also a major cultural donor — but also because of her scholarly background.
“She’s very comprehensive in her understanding” of the Latin American art world, he said. “She supports it at MoMA, and she’s also involved with curatorship.”
Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, described Ms. Brodsky as “exacting and demanding” as a donor, “but in the best sense.”
Although MoMA has collected Latin American art with some consistency since its founding, at other institutions and in art history departments Latin American art was for a long time either ghettoized or excluded from the Western art historical canon. Survey courses might have mentioned Diego Rivera or other muralists, partly because they executed major works in the United States.
Only in the last 15 years have scholars fully embraced the contributions of Latin American artists to 20th-century abstract movements, particularly in the areas of installation and performance. At the same time the rise of international art fairs has brought greater attention to contemporary artists working in Latin America.
In a recent interview at her apartment, filled with work by artists like Jesús Rafael Soto, Julio Le Parc and Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt), as well as the odd European, Ms. Brodsky discussed her quest to help bring Latin American art to the forefront.
Apart from her passion for the art and its history, she said she wanted Latin Americans in the United States, particularly young people, to feel pride in their culture’s creative achievements.
Growing up in New York City in the 1950s and ’60s, with parents who had immigrated from Venezuela and Uruguay, Ms. Brodsky, 56, said she learned how ignorant most of her young peers were about Latin America.
“It was pretty much, ‘Oh, were your parents Indians, living in the jungle?’ ” she said of her classmates in the fourth or fifth grade. Her great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Juan Idiarte Borda, was the president of Uruguay. He was assassinated in 1897 — presumably, the theory goes, by a political foe — “but we don’t talk about that,” she said with a wry smile.
Ms. Brodsky is the youngest of four sisters, who all live in the city. Her sister Jacqueline Weld Drake is the chairwoman of Casita Maria, a settlement house that serves Hispanic communities in East Harlem and the South Bronx.
Ms. Brodsky attended the Brearley School in Manhattan and then Sarah Lawrence College before marrying Mr. Brodsky, the son of the real estate developer Nathan Brodsky and now a partner in the Brodsky Organization. They have three children: Alex, 31; Katy, 29; and Thomas, 26. (Daniel Brodsky sits on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City Ballet and New York University.)
Her scholarly and philanthropic interests took a while to germinate. When her children were young, her life was not that different from any other Upper East Side socialite’s: “mommy teas” at school, volunteering at the Met. When Katy was in the second grade, Ms. Brodsky went back to school to earn a master’s degree in art history at Hunter College, focusing on Impressionism.
In 1995 a friend enlisted her to help organize an exhibition on the Taíno, pre-Colombian inhabitants of the Caribbean, at El Museo del Barrio. She traveled to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba helping to arrange loans. The overall experience was transformative, she said.
In a visitors’ comment book at the exhibition, she recalled, “A little kid said, ‘My name is Taino, and I’m so happy now to learn what I’m named after.’ I thought that was so cute: Here was this kid, who probably felt like a little bit of an outsider because he had this strange name, who now felt proud about his heritage.”
Realizing that the museum was important but needed help with fund-raising, Ms. Brodsky joined its board in 1997 and began recruiting friends, many of whom had barely heard of the museum, to support it. She rose to become the board’s chairwoman, and with the artist and lecturer Tony Bechara, its chairman, she started an annual gala. By the time she left the board, in 2003, the gala regularly raised $500,000.
Beyond finding her philanthropic niche at El Museo, Ms. Brodsky realized how much more she wanted to learn. She decided to go back to school for a doctorate, this time focusing on Latin America. Her husband and children were supportive, and she was accepted to the Institute of Fine Arts at N.Y.U., where she is now completing her dissertation on the artists Soto and Le Parc.
She clearly relishes living with art, regarding the objects in her apartment as beloved if sometimes eccentric friends. On a recent afternoon, for instance, a sculpture by the Belgian artist Pol Bury, made of little curling pieces of metal that rotate slowly when a motor is turned on, was making an unpleasant squeaking sound that carried into the next room. “I think I have to oil the poor thing,” Ms. Brodsky said, after turning it off to restore quiet.
Among the many other pieces in her apartment are a striking black-and-white geometrical painting by the Cuban artist Carmen Herrera; a light sculpture by the Argentine artist Martha Boto; and an interactive sculpture by Le Parc.
Despite the national decline in real estate values, which seems certain to have some impact on the family business, Ms. Brodsky said she expected to be able to continue giving “strategically,” including to Harvard, where the director of the Art Museum, Thomas Lentz, said there is an urgent need to play catch up on Latin American art. “It has very clearly been a missing piece in the collection here,” he said.
Ms. Brodsky, who recently organized a show of the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Díez, which is on view through January at the Americas Society on Park Avenue, said she saw herself as part of a group of people who are helping to raise the status of Latin American art, including Mrs. Cisneros at MoMA; Tiqui Atencio Demirdjian, a major donor to the Tate Modern in London; and Mr. Bechara, a trustee at El Museo.
With the growing number of Latin American immigrants in the United States, she suggested, their effort has gained momentum in the last year or two.
“The timing is right,” she said.