In life and in death, people tend to be noticed and remembered for what they do and what they leave behind, which is not necessarily a product of an outsized personality or the news of the hour.
Washington philanthropist Victoria P. Sant, who died on Dec. 11 at 79 of complications from cancer, did not noticeably hunger for fame, publicity or red-carpet treatment, although she was highly visible and noticeable with her husband Roger Sant at social events (often sponsored by the couple) that celebrated cultural institutions, the arts and art, education and social causes.
If you want to catch the drift of her life and its meaning, one could simply publish a list. It would be a lengthy list that measured not only impressively large charitable contributions but animated activity and engagement.
In the initial Washington Post obituary, Sant was lauded as “a philanthropist interested in conservation and global population issues who spent decades at the top of Washington’s A-List.”
True. And that’s not all.
While the charitable contributions were considerable, with the Sants — who lived at 30th and N Streets in Georgetown — it was more a case of philanthropy with an interest and a purpose, and her role was one of direct engagement and participation.
A California native and a graduate of Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in history, she began her activist and charitable march as a member of Stanford’s board of trustees for a decade. She served as chair of the Stanford in Washington National Council and as a member of the director’s advisory board of Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts.
Lists are, of course, stodgy, not particularly engaging, dramatic or even revealing, but even a small Sant list can feel like the exception to the rule, mapping a life of voluntary as well as ambitious service.
Sant co-founded the Summit Foundation, supporting the international empowerment of girls and reproductive health initiatives, of which she was president for nearly three decades, and the Summit Fund of Washington, focused on making the Anacostia River swimmable and fishable.
She and her husband endowed the positions of music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She had served as a board chair of the Phillips Collection and on the boards of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the Brookings Institution.
Memorably, she supported the National Zoo’s giant panda project, and gave $25 million for the National History Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall.
Perhaps her most impactive, visible and vivid presence in the city’s cultural and arts community was at the National Gallery of Art, where she first served as a member of the board of trustees, then as board chairman for 12 years.
Contributions, endowment and naming efforts are pragmatic and real; engagement on a close and daily basis are another. If you ever encountered Vicki Sant even in passing, or at meetings and discussions at Brookings or the Aspen Institute, you saw a person who spoke directly, with great involvement and intelligence and keen interest. No doubt this was true when the arena became the gala, the ball, the reception.
We could do worse in this season and in these times, when we pass through the breadth and depth of Sant Ocean Hall or the twinkling light-art installation in the walkway linking the National Gallery’s East and West Buildings — or, for that matter, a painting, a panda or a fresh idea — than to think of her gratefully.
A memorial service, to be held in Washington, D.C., will be announced at a later date.