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SFO’s Latest Exhibit Is Art History’s Answer to the Cat Video

A self-professed cat lady shows off her art collection.


Cat hand screen (fan), Adolphe Thomasse, early 20th century

“There’s this really ignorant idea that cats are only just beginning to be popular, and that they belong to women,” collector Sandy Lerner says. “We do men a disservice when we think that men don’t like cats and haven’t liked cats.”

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Two Seated Cats, Émile Gallé, circa 1900

“I don’t collect unhappy cats. My complete aesthetic is: Is it a happy cat? Is it really fun? Is it saying something really good about the cat?”

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Cat head inkwell, late 19th century

“There’s this epithet of ‘crazy cat lady.’ We don’t have ‘crazy dog man’ or ‘crazy cat man.’ But there have been a whole lot of crazy cat men documented before there were crazy cat women.”

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“I’m in touch with my inner kitten,” Sandy Lerner says. “If you want to call me a crazy cat lady, go right ahead.” We’ll opt for committed cat lady—because Lerner, who turns 63 this year, isn’t anyone’s definition of deranged. She’s the cofounder of Cisco Systems, the founder of the cosmetics line Urban Decay, and a founding patron of Chawton House, a museum and library in England that promotes the study of early women writers. Lerner is also, as you might have guessed, something of a cat obsessive—she’s the author of a book on kitty art and owner of a robust collection of cat-focused sculpture, paintings, china, and jewelry. “I can watch cats like most people watch football,” says Lerner, who lives with three actual cats on a farm in Virginia where she also keeps pigs, cows, and poultry.

This summer, Lerner’s pet project, Caticons: The Cat in Art, will be open to the masses. The 13 million passengers rushing through SFO’s international terminal will be treated to a sampling of more than 120 pieces from her collection that span 4,000 years of feline fascination, from Egyptian gods to Grumpy Cat memes—which she loves. “At the end of the day, if you leave people alone, what they most want to do is make cat videos…. To me, it’s just heaven.” July 21–Apr. 21, 2019

Originally published in the July issue of
San Francisco 

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