Hands On: Working with Artist-Endowed Foundations and Trusts
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), have been the core of my professional life since 2009 and a deeply gratifying culmination of nearly fifty years of work in the visual arts. The six foundations and trusts I work with, all set up to protect lifetimes of creativity from being swiftly dispersed, have different issues and operate quite distinctly. For the majority of the artist-endowed foundations and artists’ trusts my fellow board members and I serve on, there is no financial compensation.
My involvement with artist-endowed foundations and artists’ trusts followed five paid positions in the visual arts. These jobs were excellent training for the combined curatorial, education, commercial, administrative, and philanthropic functions I have pursued since around 2002 when, six years after the artist’s death, I was asked to join the board of the Leon Polk Smith Foundation. Effectively only endowing the foundation with art, it took the Foundation a decade to achieve, beyond its very basic operating costs, cash and endowment resources of around a million dollars. The Foundation maintained the artist’s affiliation with the Washburn Gallery, which provided regular exposure and crucial operating support. The recent primary affiliation with Lisson—among the four commercial galleries now representing Smith’s art—has dramatically increased the sales, prices, and international awareness of his art and the Foundation’s ability to more properly preserve it.
Activated after Saul Steinberg’s death in 1999, The Saul Steinberg Foundation is devoted to researching and documenting Steinberg’s prodigious artistic output and complex, fascinating life. Starting with limited funds bequeathed by Steinberg, the Foundation’s monetary assets derive from sales of his work and fees from the use of and licensing of his images. Careful research and gathering of archival resources continue to be led by Sheila Schwartz, the Steinberg Foundation’s first director. Pace Gallery has represented Steinberg’s work since 1982. In recent years other, smaller galleries have also presented shows from the Foundation’s holdings. Significant highlights of the Foundation’s accomplishments include the touring, definitive exhibition Saul Steinberg: Illuminations and its accompanying publication, organized by Joel Smith, and a comprehensive website and upgraded database. The Foundation now has the added focus of distributing its art to public institutions beyond his substantial bequest of his art, archives and research resources to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.
Museum exhibitions and monographs, along with extensive cataloguing and online databases projects—often leading to the creation of a catalogue raisonné—are key outcomes of artist-endowed foundations and trusts. (Though catalogue raisonnés are not being planned by any of the foundations and trusts I work with.) As has also been the practice of the Leon Polk Smith Foundation, particularly with a major study collection of drawings and small paintings given to the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in Stillwater, donating Smith’s art to public collections is a important part of its program. Gifts by the Steinberg Foundation of his artworks to many museums with resulting solo exhibitions, such as at the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and forthcoming at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, likewise provide fresh perspectives and keep these artists’ work in the public’s eye.
The Woodman Family Foundation, established in 1994 by Betty and George Woodman, was activated by Betty Woodman’s death in early 2018. Set up to maintain the work and build the appreciation and understanding of three distinctly different artists—Betty and George and their daughter Francesca—it has substantial artistic and financial resources. The board includes as its Chair the Woodmans’ son Charles, who is also an artist.
Not all artists choose to create an artist-endowed foundation, given that maintaining charitable tax-exempt status can involve extra expense and complication; a simple private trust is one option for others, often those with more modest estates. The Fanny Sanin Trust, created and overseen by the Colombian-American geometric abstract artist and her husband, has also had notable success making gift and purchase arrangements with museums, generating exhibitions, and producing smaller catalogs and a forthcoming major monograph on Sanin. The Jennifer Wynne Reeves Trust was a consuming task of Reeves before her death at fifty-one from a brain tumor. Overseen by devoted family and colleagues, the trust consists of the works Reeves still owned. Though she had considerable sales in her thirties and forties, it has been challenging to sustain her art’s visibility after her death. Her first solo museum exhibition at The Drawing Center in New York in 2018- 2019 and its catalog heighted interest. A tax-exempt public charity supported by grants and private donations, CALL (City as Living Laboratory) was set up by the artist Mary Miss to preserve and promote her artwork and assist with her current collaborative art and sustainability projects. Neither a foundation or a trust, it is the most program-based of the artist-initiated entities I have worked with—and being grant-funded and not sales—or endowment-based—it is the most vulnerable.
Either a sizable founding financial bequest or very active sales at high prices are necessary to fulfill any mission for artist-endowed foundations and artists’ trusts beyond very basic operational and administrative costs. Grants for art-endowed foundations from other non-profits occur infrequently and are very rare given their tax status for many artists’ trust. Fortunately artist-endowed foundations and trusts can and do more easily alter and diminish their activities to address their economic and staffing realities. Though building the reputations and understanding of artists remains paramount, several of the foundations and trusts I am involved with are considering scenarios to “sunset” and close down their operation, though distributing their art, archives, and any other non-financial resources can prove a daunting task in a market-driven art world with many more artists than collectors and patrons and public institutions focused on contemporary art.