In Focus: New York's Sara Ogger

By Eastland, Katherine | Humanities, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview
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In Focus: New York's Sara Ogger

Eastland, Katherine, Humanities

"THERE," SHE SAYS, POINTING AT THE SKYSCRAPER beyond her office window, "I recently saw a kestrel strike a songbird midair and take it over to that windowsill to ruffle off its' feathers." Sara Ogger sits back in her chair, seventeen floors above the urban jungle of New York City, and notes with a smile, "I can now officially retire from birdwatching."

Growing up the daughter of two scientists in Royal Oak, Michigan, Ogger developed an eye for observing the natural world and kept aquaria brimming with pet lizards and insects. But she also played the violin and had an appetite for reading. "If you can be great at science and a great writer," her father told her early on, "you can write your own ticket. But," he warned, "we can't save enough for college."

Ogger chose the humanities at Bryn Mawr, which she attended on a partial scholarship while enrolled in the college's work-study program. She earned her BA in German studies and minored in philosophy. In between "mind-numbing feats of devotion," she says, "like trying to read Heidegger" in its original, she studied twice in Tübingen, Germany, first in 1 989 and then as a Princeton graduate student in 1 995 - before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After college graduation, Ogger moved to New "fork, reckoning that the city's concentration of culture, subway system, and walkability would remind her of Europe. She enjoyed working at Marian Goodman Gallery, where she met illuminati like German artist Anselm Kiefer, but decided to earn a PhD in German literature and language at Princeton.

After a few years of teaching at Montclair State University, Ogger found herself wanting more interaction with the general culture and society at large. She left academia and joined the New York Council for the Humanities in 2002 as a grants officer. Since 2007. Ogger has served as executive director.

Under her leadership, the council has updated its technology and communications, renovated its offices (with Ogger's husband, Jean-Gabriel Neukomm, an architect who also redesigned Marian Goodman Gallery), and increased its grants funding and the scope of programs offered to New Yorkers everywhere - including far upstate Watertown, where Ogger once held a grants workshop. The key to success in the public humanities, she emphasizes, "is meeting people where they live and work. >ou have to go where they are."

Significant state funding over a four-year period has helped the council reach more New Yorkers than ever - 1 .

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