Proclaiming that artists are the central protagonists of the art world is self-evident: they make the objects and creative phenomena that are the core around which all else revolves. Beyond this fact, though, artists have extended their reach into the future by initiating artist-endowed foundations. In the last few decades, these entities have assumed a strikingly influential place alongside the other platforms of the art world.
Artist-endowed foundations (“AEFs”) are increasing in number due to the convergence of three factors—demographic trends in the artist population, the continuing rise in the global art market, and artists’ desires to provide for their creative works and philanthropic interests in the long-term.
It was a dinner party in Paris, but everyone was American. All the other guests were “people of means,” substantially, and connected to the art world. They were collectors and lawyers and money people. None of them made art, but all of them put it on a pedestal.
When Americans woke up to art in the 1960s, Calder was largely seen as a contemporary of Warhol and Lichtenstein. Very few people realized that he was born in 1898, or that he emerged in 1920s Paris, where he redefined art history through performance, action, and chance. Calder was an essential figure in the international avant-garde, an intellectual luminary who stood alongside Duchamp, Mondrian, and Picasso as one of the greats. His place in this narrative has been a focus of the Calder Foundation for the past thirty years. It’s important that his work be understood and engaged within this context—and more importantly, with close attention paid to his original intent.
Like all artist-endowed foundations, the Dedalus Foundation, which Robert Motherwell established in 1981, is committed to preserving its founder’s artistic legacy. But Motherwell wanted his foundation to have a broader remit, that of fostering public understanding and appreciation of the principles of modern art and modernism. And for Motherwell, modernism was not limited simply to a certain range of artistic styles; it was part of an attitude toward life, a way of probing the nature of reality, and of creating what he called “shaped meaning, without which no life is worth living.”
Jay DeFeo (1929 – 1989) was a remarkable artist who created a significant number of innovative artworks, both central factors to the distinct trajectory of The Jay DeFeo Foundation. Established as a private trust by the will of the artist, the trust was later transformed into a non-profit foundation. The mandates of the trust were caring for and furthering the public exposure of her artworks and encouraging the arts more generally. It was endowed with all of DeFeo’s artworks and an extensive archive, but no funding. As can be imagined, in the community of artist-endowed foundations an unfunded entity is not considered a likely or advisable model for sustainability.
Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) had a long and prolific career that spanned more than five decades. She was especially prominent from the 1960s through the 1980s, with a powerful presence as one of the key artists of her generation working in an abstract mode. However, by the 1990s her work’s significance to and interest for then-current artistic discourse was waning. While she continued to be active into the early 2000s and was especially productive in the area of printmaking late in her career, at the time of her death her presence in the art world and influence on younger artists was little noted.
The idea for a foundation to help older artists started in a discussion between Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko in the late 1960s. Mark Rothko died in February, 1970; Gottlieb in March, 1974. Both artists left similar instructions to establish foundations to help individual artists.
Arguably one of the most influential artists of his time, Mike Kelley left a formidable body of work that blurred boundaries, pushed buttons, and crossed genres. The work has been described as intestinal, traumatic, and elegiac (Anne Rochette and Wade Saunders, Art in America ); as well as disturbing, demanding, and beautiful (Roberta Smith, New York Times ). It is unlikely that it has ever been described as prudent, professionalized, or operating within what institutions define as best practices. On the one hand, commentators point to the arresting passion of Kelley’s oeuvre; on the other is a set of terms describing the discretion or deference of a researched and curated legacy.
Just as artists differ, so do their legacies. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation is a case in point. It is a happy case and a privileged, lucky one . . . at least so far.
When painter Joan Mitchell died in 1992, she left instructions in her will that a Foundation be established in her name. The Foundation was to have two distinct yet equally important functions: to “aid and assist” working artists and to serve as the chief steward of her legacy. These two intertwining components have remained at the core of the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s mission, providing the driving vision for all of its work.
It’s not difficult to understand the depth and breadth of these two quotes when standing on Blair Lane in Joshua Tree California, looking out over the scores of artworks—from monumental to human scale, built by Noah Purifoy during a sixteen-year period that populate the ten-acre site of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. Also, the immense challenges facing the Foundation as well. Sometimes you can feel Noah’s presence working in seamless collaboration with the robust environment of the High desert—his oft-cited partner in the creative process. Noah was seventy-two years old when he moved to the desert.
Working with artist-initiated entities charged with stewarding a creative legacy, both artist-endowed foundations (charitable tax-exempt organizations) and artists’ trusts (private, non-exempt entities), has been the core of my professional life since 2009 and a deeply gratifying culmination of nearly fifty years of work in the visual arts.
I have heard stories from friends from the ’60s and ’70s that Mark would give you money if he had it and you needed it. Not that he had a lot of money. But if you had it, you shared it. He was one of the founders of Park Place Gallery which was a cooperative gallery. He gave Paula Cooper a piece to sell which helped to fund her first gallery. Perhaps this was the refugee spirit having emigrated to the US with no money when he was seven. Perhaps this was part of the spirit of the ‘60s. Perhaps it was just his nature.
When Lenore Tawney incorporated the LGT Foundation (now doing business as the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation) in 1989, she became part of a small but growing number of artists to establish a foundation. Only a fraction of these artist-endowed foundations were founded by women, and few represented artists working in non-traditional materials. But Tawney, whose broad practice included a variety of media though she was best known as a weaver, was accustomed to being an outlier. The choice to name her foundation with the anonymous “LGT” initials is also revealing. Tawney had long been philanthropic but frequently made gifts anonymously, preferring to follow a quiet path, out of the limelight.
Niki often talked about what would happen after she died. She and her husband Jean Tinguely married and remained married mostly to protect each other. This created a protective wall: each knew the other would do their best to preserve the art and respect each other’s vision. If you wanted to or not, if you were around them, you had to listen to their multiple ever-changing plans. As Tinguely liked to say, they were “megalomaniac artists!”