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A Gift from One Artist to Many: The Joan Mitchell Foundation

Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio, 1983. Photograph by Robert Freson, Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives. © Joan Mitchell Foundation.

Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) was an American artist whose career spanned more than four decades in the US and France. Most recognized for her large, abstract oils on canvas, Mitchell’s oeuvre also includes an extensive body of smaller paintings, works on paper, and prints. While she achieved critical acclaim in her lifetime, the full depth and diversity of her practice continues to be examined and revealed today. Mitchell was also known for her generosity to many young artists who came to stay at her home outside Paris. When she died in 1992, she left instructions in her will that a Foundation be established in her name, both to serve as the chief steward of her legacy and to “aid and assist” working artists. These two distinct yet intertwining components of her life and vision have remained at the core of the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s mission, driving all of its work. 

With 2018 marking the Foundation’s 25th anniversary, it seemed fitting that Mark Rosenthal approached me to write about the evolving nature of our work. Although regular assessments of vision and activity are standard practice, big anniversary years offer particularly poignant moments of reflection. As I think about our history, several distinct phases emerge, each critical to establishing a balance between the Foundation’s dual purposes and setting a trajectory of stability into the future. 

As with many artist-endowed foundations, our operating model uses funds from strategic sales of artworks in our collection to grow our investment portfolio and support our mission-driven work. This requires active and thoughtful management of our collection, which includes both loaning artworks for scholarly and public benefit and maintaining financial resources for our artist-focused initiatives. Finding the right balance between these two branches of the Foundation’s work can be a delicate process. 

The first decade of the Foundation’s life was centered on idea formation and start-up, as we considered what shape meaningful support for artists could take. We gave our first set of Painters & Sculptors Grants in 1994 to a group of 18 artists, who each received $10,000 in unrestricted funds. The unrestricted nature of the funding was a direct response to Mitchell’s own commitment to supporting creative process over product. This inaugural grant program remains an integral part of our work today, as it offers artists the flexibility to spend monies to best suit their needs, whether as a means of buying new supplies, renting studio space, or relieving everyday financial stresses.

Between 2004 – 2014, the Foundation experienced substantive and exciting growth. As is not unusual in the artist-endowed foundation world, Mitchell’s estate took a number of years to be settled. The Foundation received the bulk of its collection of artwork in 2004, at which time it added staff and projects related to collections management.  In the same year, we increased the award for the Painters & Sculptors Grants to $25,000. In 2005, in response to the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans community, we formalized an Emergency Grants program for artists affected by natural disasters. Also in this decade, we developed a separate grant program for arts organizations nationwide; expanded our arts education program, based in New York City; and began construction on a campus in New Orleans for artist residencies, now called the Joan Mitchell Center. Our program offered a richness and depth of opportunity for artists, but naturally required substantial resources to run and maintain. 

When I joined as CEO in 2015, the Foundation had reached a pivotal phase. After two decades of programmatic growth and experimentation, it was important to assess alignment with the priorities Mitchell set forth for the Foundation, and consider the cost implications of each offering. We knew, as a matter of mission, that we could not compromise our thoughtful stewardship of Mitchell’s work and legacy to support unchecked programmatic growth. The Board and I carefully examined our roster of programs, with an eye toward clarity of vision and ensuring the Foundation’s stability in perpetuity.

Over the next two years, we concluded our arts education programming and our grants to arts organizations, re-focusing on direct support to artists. This led to a 20% reduction in operating expenses. During this transition, the Board and I also began visioning what stewarding Mitchell’s legacy would mean in the next decade.

To that end, we have invested in deepening the skillset of our on-staff legacy team, especially in the areas of collections and archives management, conservation, and research. We continue to expand access to our archives for those developing new scholarship on Mitchell’s art and life as well as the period in which she worked, and to enhancing our collaboration with curators and scholars on new exhibitions and supporting texts. We are also continuing to support the development of the Joan Mitchell Catalogue Raisonné, which we first established as an independent project in 2015. To complement our grants, residency opportunities, and other resources for artists, we are exploring initiatives to better support researchers and curators in the field.

These changes have realigned and strengthened the Foundation. Our commitment to supporting artists has focused and deepened, and our stewardship of Mitchell’s legacy has improved and expanded. Looking to the future, we are excited to continue being a resource and innovator in our field, demonstrating the importance of artists and their work, and the power of Joan Mitchell’s vision of generosity.

Contributor

Christa Blatchford

is CEO of the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

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