Don’t Try This At Home (or Alone)by Jack Cowart
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.
I don’t want our Foundation to be taken as the recommended design for how an artist endowed foundation should be. But this brief, imperfect, autobiography, is how ours has been, curiously and retrospectively, as we look forward to the mid/late 2020s, when we assume a wind-down of most of our operations and pass ourselves on to successor institutions.
I only learned that Roy and his family had provisions for a foundation in a casual conversation with Dorothy Lichtenstein in early 1999. I had known the family since 1977, but this came as new news to me. Our conversation had begun with how to cope with the numerous remaining, shall we say, “dependency relationships,” in the art world, where everyone relentlessly wanted whatever art they could get from Roy’s estate. My career in museums led me to suggest that Dorothy needed an institutional “We,” to make it less personal and less guilt-inducing. She informed me that a foundation existed, at least on paper, and, by the way, would I consider becoming the director?
This was casual because, unlike some families and artists and legacies, there were no controversies, no immediate estate needs and no competing interests. In fact, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation was a kind of placeholder—Dorothy Lichtenstein’s own default art estate-planning mechanism. Roy didn’t need one, since he had a surviving widow and two sons. We began in mid-1999, with one and a half employees, no money, and no art. We did have the loyal pledge of Mrs. Lichtenstein, a pledge which has proven to be so much more than good enough. We also had documents of incorporation and mission from 1998, sketching legitimate areas of interest and performance, as required by the IRS. Two key points were that the Foundation would undertake a catalogue raisonné of Roy’s work and facilitate public access to the art of Roy Lichtenstein, art and artists of his time, and contemporary art in general. Further, the Foundation would help inform the next generations of artists, critics, and curators.
From that point on, we could creatively imagine our paths. Supported by careful legal and financial counsel, a small but expert Board, and plenty of useful advice from other foundations, we also started small. But we were free to build largely in response to our own evolving interests or situations. Working in Roy’s studio, we decided to become the data hub for anything Lichtenstein. We launched an oral history program, a vast compiling of any photograph of the artist, an archive of all interviews, films, letters, or references. We established object and correspondence files on each of the 5,000+ works Roy created as well as every exhibition during his lifetime, and beyond. We developed a three-thousand volume reference library, catalogued all studio materials and working methods, made deposits of pigments, papers, and tools to several museum conservation departments. We also facilitated over seventy-five exhibitions concerning Roy Lichtenstein and related artists, globally. Staff increased from the original 1.5 to twenty today, counting our archivists, registrar, image processors, photographers, and an array of full and part-time digital catalogue raisonné team members in the US and Europe. Our budget last year was just over three million dollars.
We learned about public benefit and best practices, always led by the artist’s widow whose vision is open to all circumstances, including our reactive freelancing. We adopted a role in helping educate emerging artist-endowed foundations and helping museums grow their collections of Lichtenstein. Further, we opportunistically rescued, and inventoried over 200,000 rare (Harry) Shunk-(Janos) Kender photographs of late 1950s to early 1970s, European and American artists, their studios, their art performances and actions from the (intestate) estate of Harry Shunk, and then gifted them to the Getty, Pompidou, Tate, National Gallery of Art, and MoMA. We imagine continued distribution of our remaining Shunk/Shunk-Kender photographs to American university and college museums. We have become economically self-sufficient through sales of art and fabrication licenses given to us by Dorothy Lichtenstein and the Lichtenstein family.
Over the past several years, deciding against a self-directed Lichtenstein Study Center, we dared ask the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Archives of American Art if they would be leaders among our imagined successor institutions. We all know they accepted. Now we begin a new chapter of ongoing out-placements of Roy’s arts and records. We are targeting the artist’s birth centennial in 2023 as our digital catalogue raisonné release date, if not sooner.
Not every artist or their family could or should try this.
JACK COWART is the Executive Director of Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, New York City.