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.
First it must be understood that an estate is not a foundation unless it is established following the applicable strictures of the IRS, which requires that the general public be the beneficiary.[i] However, the artist may have set a foundation into motion during her/his lifetime, sometimes with a clear road map, or it may come about at the instigation of others after the artist’s death. Each story differs, and some have been convoluted and even messy, witness the dastardly deeds that followed the death of Mark Rothko in 1970, the more recent shenanigans in the aftermaths of the lives of Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, and now the hullabaloo immediately since the demise of Robert Indiana this year. Such are the “birthing pains” (Jack Cowart) of foundations-in-formation, during which a new entity gains its footing.
The most fundamental ambition of an artist in creating a foundation is to establish a means to posthumously steward his or her creative achievements in a way that will sustain and enhance the relevance of the work, as well as to provide for philanthropy that will address the greater good. The artist-endowed foundation takes up that charge, focusing and framing it to benefit the public by increasing access to the artist’s works and building knowledge about the role in art history. This is accomplished along a variety of well-established educational paths, including the creation of a catalogue raisonné, and the facilitation of exhibitions and research about the artist, which are often enhanced by foundation loans and access to unpublished archives. (While authentication was formerly the provenance of most artist foundations, it is for now, with the exception of the Calder Foundation, almost entirely avoided, due to cripplingly expensive legal ramifications.) A foundation’s activities are usually made possible by the proceeds of art sales carried out by one or more galleries representing it in the art market. Not all foundations are born on an equal footing: at the extremes, some have instant star power together with huge resources, while others emerge from artists whose reputations and financial assets are more modest. Each foundation director has a mandate that is site-specific, as it were, the “site” being the artist whose foundation the director heads.
Along with the goal of educating about the artistic achievements of its founder, a foundation’s activities may comprise other, varied, philanthropic and educational initiatives. Andy Warhol’s instruction was general, specifying “the advancement of the visual arts.” With that directive, the Andy Warhol Foundation (founded 1987) has become the major American funder of contemporary art exhibitions, especially those that are considered challenging and in need of support. By its extensive activities, the Warhol Foundation has, in effect, supplanted the role of the much-diminished National Endowment for the Arts.
Many foundations have given emphasis to supporting artists with little recognition, either through direct funding, grants, residencies, acquisitions, or exhibitions. For example, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, created over 100 years ago by the noted designer, focuses its grants on promising but not yet widely-recognized artists. The Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation directs its support to under recognized but specifically “mature” artists. The Alex Katz Foundation purchases young artists’ works, and then donates these to regional museums, primarily in Maine. Through such actions, artists’ foundations lend a hand to subsequent generations.
Even larger, macro causes are the ambition of some organizations, witness the goal of the Dedalus Foundation (started by Robert Motherwell) to increase visual literacy among the general public. The mission of the Anyone Can Fly Foundation, begun by Faith Ringgold, is to expand knowledge of the art of the African Diaspora. For the artist Mark Bradford, and his co-founders of the Art + Practice Foundation, Eileen Harris Norton and Allan DiCastro, one aim is to improve the lives of foster youth in Los Angeles. Some organizations exemplify the emergence of living artists in the field of artist-endowed foundations, with individuals seizing philanthropic opportunities during their lives rather than directing aid after their deaths.
This very abbreviated survey begins with a “map” of the territory, ably drawn by Christine J. Vincent, Project Director of the Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative, of the Aspen Institute. The essays that follow explore the range of activities of artist-endowed foundations, even including the possibility of one that is deliberately coming to an end—a “sunset” in the parlance of the field. The striking variety of these essays speaks to the demands on and talents of the directors of the foundations, who are not only creative stewards of the artists’ reputations but philanthropic thinkers. Even in this brief overview, we can see how artists have not only enhanced our world by their creative activity but have gone beyond through their foundations. The artist-endowed foundation is an arena that is already impressive in its achievements and ambitions, with a significant future likely to come.
[i] For a full understanding of this phenomenon, see the Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative of the Aspen Institute; in particular, I refer the reader to this resource for an authoritative discussion of the legal complexities of the field. For my introduction, I am deeply grateful to Christine J. Vincent, Project Director of the Aspen program; in addition, I thank Jack Cowart, Director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, Leah Levy, Director of the Jay DeFeo Foundation, Patterson Sims, who is involved with a number of foundations, and Judith Olch Richards, independent advisor for their wise advice.