Curator and inaugural Executive Director of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, Lisa Le Feuvre, spoke with Keith Wilson about the necessity of a clear mission statement, the importance of the word “creative,” and what it means for a foundation to honor an artist’s work. They spoke at the James Gallery at the Graduate Center, CUNY. The following is an excerpt of their conversation.
Keith Wilson (Rail): You are the first Executive Director of the Holt/Smithson Foundation—how do you make sense of what you have been tasked with?
Lisa Le Feuvre: It comes down to deciding what you want to do. The first question one needs to ask is: What does this foundation exist for? You need to put this on paper, and you have to be committed to making a difference and keeping to your vision. It may sound very bureaucratic, but setting a mission statement that clarifies what you intend to be and do is essential.
Artist-endowed foundations, in my opinion, are the future of the arts. Commercial galleries are great, but they have to make money. Museums are fantastic, but in the current climate you will find yourself busy with fundraising or implementation of socially ameliorative directives, both of which can distract you from art. If you are a private museum, you are subject to the vanity of the owner. This is not a value judgement, rather a note that we need to understand these conditions. Artist-endowed foundations are different. They exist because of an artist’s work, meaning art is at the heart of what these organizations do. Because of this, they have the responsibility to be fiercely independent and keep art at the center.
When I was considering what this foundation should be, I read an excellent text by the art critic Lawrence Alloway (in fact he was writing about Robert Smithson) in which he explains that the best measure of an artist’s influence and legacy is when other artists of different generations take an artist’s ideas and run with them to places the artist in question never would have gone. And that started me thinking: if Holt and Smithson recalibrated the possibilities of art (and I’m happy to make that argument), their foundation needs to do exactly the same thing. It must make a difference.
When we were working on our mission statement we talked about creative legacies. The addition of that adjective changes everything. It then becomes about stimulating new research on these artists, bringing new questions to their work, collaborating with artists working today, and getting things seen that have never been seen before. Smithson must now surely be on every single art student’s reading list, but Holt is not, so we need to get her work known, publish her writings, make sure her lesser-known room-sized installations and concrete poetry are all seen.
We also will work with artists who manifestly come from the legacies Holt and Smithson created. The foundation owns some land that was bought by the artists: an island in Maine, which in a few decades likely won’t exist as it will be submerged, and some super-remote land in Utah. On both sites we will commission artists to work on the land. Our plan is that on each of these sites we will develop a five-year series of annual commissions. Our offer to the artist will be along the lines of: Here is this land, would you like to make a work? And the process will be very simple—the artist makes a work they want that also makes use of this land in some way. Then, inspired by Smithson’s idea of the site/nonsite dialectic, integral to the brief is that whatever the artist makes must be capable of also being shown in a museum. The commissioned work will be gifted to a museum—a different one with each invitation—where it will join a collection, and be made public.
This is about supporting an artist to do what they want—we will finance the project and we will make the gift. But there is also something very strategic: these commissions will be from artists of many generations and different nationalities, all artists who are important in our version of the present, and all of whose work expands the legacies of Holt and Smithson. This is about keeping that informal discursive side of their legacies growing.
Rail: I think that sounds fantastic. Private realms made public by acquisition of land by artists. But could we pause for a moment and go back to what you said about writing down a mission statement? It sounds like a work of interpretation on your part of both their work and their spirit. Did you find anything to serve as a guiding document in the archive? Did they leave you a map?
Le Feuvre: This is a good and useful thing to talk about, and something that I want to say to every single artist that I know. Now, you’re maybe a little bit too young for me to give this lecture to, but I will do it now and you must remember this in fifty years’ time: in short, write a will.
Le Feuvre: And write it with zero ambiguity, because that will be the road map for any artist’s legacy. Smithson died in 1973 unexpectedly and young, so of course he left no guide. Holt died in 2014 and she had a little time to put what she wanted on paper. She strongly indicated that she wanted a foundation to exist and that she wanted it to publish and to encourage new thinking on her and Smithson’s work.
It is the job of a director inventing a foundation to think about the specifics of an artist’s work and to think about what really matters. I think what matters most of all is the spirit of the artist. Now I don’t mean that in a hippy-dippy way; I take the “spirit of the artist” to be about their values. And I would encourage any artist’s will to avoid involving family members or those closest to the artist. You don’t want to be continually asking “What would Nancy have wanted?,” but rather ask “What is best for Nancy Holt’s work?” An artist’s foundation is about an artist’s work, it’s not about the artist’s personality. An artist’s foundation must make a difference; it must matter.
Keith Wilson is a sculptor and Director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY.