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. These two possibilities, however, are far from antithetical. In the case of an artist like Kelley, whose working-class background underpinned a thoughtful and prescient generosity, the foundation that bears his name was his idea, his invention, and offers a vital continuation of his deep commitment to artistic creation. The foundation functions as Kelley’s game of “telephone” (it’s a party line) with artists, curators, and institutions: it activates conversations and exchange that informs, encourages, and aids in their success. The innovative practices it supports have responded with art, exhibitions, and thinking that, like Kelley’s, are daring, inscrutable, and transgressive.
The Kelley Effect can be seen in many of the witty, challenging, and experimental works of the foundation’s grantees.
- Eduardo Sarabia’s Drifting on a Dream, an inhabitable collage of video painting, objects, and installation created a miscellany of fact, fantasy, documentary, and drama that explored contemporary and historical California and Mexico. This immersive environment, presented at The Mistake Room in Los Angeles in 2017-18, used a congregation of allegorical figures and emblematic locations to re-examine notions of migration, mysticism and folly.
- The Center for the Study of Political Graphics presented half a century of ongoing police brutality in the 2017 – 2018 exhibition To Protect and Serve? 50 Years of Posters Protesting Police Violence. Posters included a warning about kidnappers and slave-catchers posted on the streets of Boston in 1851 and another protesting police impunity for the killing of Trayvon Martin. While police violence against citizens—particularly people of color—has a long and well documented history, curator Carol Wells noted that, “Nobody would fund [the exhibition] and nobody would host it because everybody was afraid . . . And then the Mike Kelley Foundation asked me to pick a subject that nobody else would fund. Because that was the kind of thing he did. He was always pushing limits.”
- Clockshop, at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena presented a multimedia program in 2016 dedicated to the African American speculative fiction writer, MacArthur Fellow, and Nebula Award winner, Octavia E. Butler, who despite combating both sexism and racism managed to produce what are now considered classics in the genre. The program included film, music, visual art, and readings from the author’s works.
Launched in 2015, the Artist Project Grants expands Kelley’s philanthropy, building on the small grants awarded between 2008 and 2014 to a variety of arts organizations that Kelley felt were engaged in important and often unrecognized work. In a conversation with Gerry Fialka in 2004, Kelley said, “Art is the only arena left in American culture in which difference is tolerated.” He was hopeful—and adamant—about art’s ability to offer resistance and create awareness. His Foundation created a few years later would be enlisted in the struggle.
The Foundation follows the lead of the artist in many of its other endeavors. For instance, Kelley perceptively considered the question of conservation in his own lifetime—future-proofing large installations, such as Pay for Your Pleasure (1987), a site-specific work first installed in a university hallway, by creating a new hallway structure that could travel with the piece, allowing it to be a standalone work with a set configuration. Kelley also created instructions, diagrams, material samples, and other documentation of work that can be used to aid in preservation of the over 3000 works he created. Certainly, the foundation cannot know what decisions Kelley would have made but we can look to his artistic practice which was methodical and painstakingly rigorous as a model.
Kelley’s ethos guides the Foundation’s current discussions about a catalogue raisonné, our plans to open Kelley’s archives for research and an ongoing program of exhibitions, artwork loans and events. We strive to support the arts with some of the agility and inventiveness nurtured by Kelley, hoping that our stewardship passes on to future generations a glimpse at least of the passion, provocation and rigor that informed his art and life. As Kelley put it in 2010: “Art saved my life. Art was the place that made me want to educate myself. When I became an artist, it was where the most interesting thinkers were.”
ContributorMary Clare Stevens
has been Executive Director of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts since 2012. She was Kelley?s Studio Manager from 2003 until 2012 and was a trustee of his Estate. She is also an artist with an MFA from UCLA.