The gift of failure is a riddle: it will always be both the void and the start of infinite possibility. Part investigation into a psychological mystery, part an argument about creativity and art, and part a soulful celebration of the determination and courage of the human spirit, Sarah Lewis makes the case that many of the world’s greatest achievements have come from understanding the central importance of failure.
Vision & Justice
The Vision & Justice Project wrestles with the question of how the foundational right of representation in a democracy, the right to be recognized justly, has historically and is still urgently tied to the work of visual representation in the public realm.
Success Story: Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Lewis gave a riveting, personalized keynote at Harley-Davidson to rave reviews
Art historian, award-winning author, and Harvard professor SARAH ELIZABETH LEWIS joined Harley-Davidson for their second-annual Month of Inclusion, offering a riveting and personalized keynote speech. Planned in recognition of Black History Month, the anticipated event size was intimate, and both the host and Dr. Lewis were moved when over 700 employees joined the virtual gathering. As with all her events, Dr. Lewis curated a powerful series of photographs which intertwined with her storytelling as she interacted skillfully with the audience to cultivate an authentic and deeply impactful rapport. Focusing on Harley-Davidson’s mission and ethos, she began with an image of the open road, asking: “Who is safe on the road? Who is allowed to roam free?”
Sharing her experience on social media, Dr. Lewis wrote, “what an extraordinary time we had.” She went on to acknowledge the ‘surprising impact’ the event had on her as well, saying, “I love when the universe presents you with a scenario you could not have imagined. It’s a reminder that you are being lovingly used for a grander design.” Dr. Lewis consistently receives resounding praise for her talks, which are tailored thoughtfully to each audience: “Dr Lewis energizes, inspires and captivates with such grace – how she leverages captivating visual examples to show how racial justice and democracy have intersected in the US leaves a lasting impression. We cannot thank you enough for the impact that you left on us at Harley-Davidson and look forward to working with you again soon!” (Harley-Davidson Motor Company)
Sarah Elizabeth Lewis offers spell-binding presentations on reframing success, innovating for the long-term, and the role of art & culture for justice
When SARAH ELIZABETH LEWIS virtually ‘stopped by’ our offices for a much-anticipated visit, we were treated to a captivating sample of her expertise as an art historian, critic, writer, and Harvard professor. With her command of the connections between powerful ideas, it is no wonder that her classes are over-enrolled at Harvard and Sarah is an in-demand speaker for notable conferences like TED, SXSW EDU, and World of Business Ideas. Drawing breath-taking parallels between recognizable and under-studied visuals and their place within the larger framework of social justice, Sarah unfolded a powerful argument for the role of creativity and inclusiveness in a democracy. Her warmth and mastery made these culture-shifting ideas attainable, and she welcomed our questions and engaged us in a continuing conversation. We were dazzled by her skills as a speaker and moderator of meaningful engagement, tailored thoughtfully to our team as she does for every group she speaks for.
Weaving her personal history, powerful images, and practical case studies from an array of industries, Sarah refocused our points of view to the longest range. Through this fresh lens, if we – a company, an organization, individuals - can rename our failures more gently, as ‘near-wins’, we can begin to cultivate our tenacity and resilience. She speaks with generosity and vigor about the courage it takes to hold onto dissenting ideas, and the path-breaking innovation that is possible when we elevate the ideas that go against the grain. As founder of the Vision & Justice Project and an innovator herself, she understands deeply the vital need to welcome and harness innovative ideas that challenge the status quo, and the enormous benefit in business and in life that is inevitable when we revise our understanding of success. After making a lifelong study of consequential figures, Sarah distills the lessons of how embracing failure can lead to unimagined success and left us all reverberating with possibility.
Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies. Her research focuses on the intersection of African American and Black Atlantic visual representation, racial justice, and representational democracy in the United States from the nineteenth century through the present.
Her award-winning “Vision & Justice” issue of Aperture magazine received the 2017 Infinity Award for Critical Writing and Research from the International Center of Photography and launched the larger Vision and Justice Project, based on the topic of her core curriculum course at Harvard University.
In 2019, she became the inaugural recipient of the Freedom Scholar Award, presented by The Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The award honors Lewis for her body of work and its “direct positive impact on the life of African-Americans.” In 2021, Lewis was the recipient of the Frieze New York tribute for her Vision & Justice Project.
Lewis received the 2022 American Philosophical Association's Arthur Danto/American Society for Aesthetics Prize for the paper, "Groundwork: Race and Aesthetics in the Era of Stand Your Ground Law," published in Art Journal, which outlines much of her forthcoming book, Groundwork. The prize is awarded for "the best paper in the field of aesthetics, broadly understood."
Her forthcoming publications include Caucasian War: How Race Changed Sight in America (Harvard University Press, 2022), The Vision and Justice Project (One World/Random House), and a manuscript focusing on the “groundwork” of contemporary arts in the context of Stand Your Ground Laws. Lewis is the editor, with Christine Garnier, of an anthology on the work of Carrie Mae Weems (MIT Press, 2021), which has won one of the 4 inaugural Photography Network book prizes, and the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a fascinating examination of how our most iconic creative endeavors—from innovation to the arts—are not achievements but conversions, corrections after failed attempts. Translated into six languages, the book is a successful lesson on creativity, innovation, and discovery.
Her essays on race, contemporary art and culture have been published in many journals as well as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Art Journal, Art in America, Law & Literature, and for the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art, and Rizzoli. Her scholarly views also feature prominently in the upcoming HBO documentary, Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches.
Her research has received support from the Ford Foundation, the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, the Whiting Foundation, and the Lambent Foundation.
Before joining the faculty at Harvard, she held curatorial positions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate Modern, London. She also served as a Critic at Yale University School of Art. She has served on the boards of the Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, The Brearley School, and The CUNY Graduate Center and is a current board member of Creative Time, Thames & Hudson Inc., and Harvard Design Press and serves on the Yale University Honorary Degrees Committee. A frequent speaker at universities and conferences, her mainstage TED talk, Embrace the Near Win, has received over 2.9 million views. Her scholarship and research have been profiled by outlets including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, an M. Phil from Oxford University, and her Ph.D. from Yale University.
She lives in New York and Cambridge, MA.