The Artist Gives Back

by Mattie Kahn

For centuries, artists have enjoyed the support of benefactors. Through Ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England and in numerous other eras and places, a class of able, willing "sponsors" fostered the highest order of creative talent. What’s revolutionary, therefore, about the study recently published by the Aspen Institute, isn’t its tracing philanthropic support for artists, but rather its academic analysis of what happens when the artist is a guarantor for his or her peers.

Originally published in November 2010, "The Artist as Philanthropist: Strengthening the Next Generation of Artist-Endowed Foundations," was the first formal study to examine this relatively new and specific class of organizations.

Its findings sparked the November 8th panel-discussion at the Arthur M. Sackler museum: Artist-Endowed Foundations: An Emerging Force in Cultural Philanthropy. For the audience of unabashed art geeks, the event was positively star-studded. It brought together Charles C. Bergman, Chairman and CEO of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation; Jack Cowart, Executive Director at the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation; Jack Flam, President and CEO of the Dedalus Foundation (Robert Motherwell); Carolyn Somers, Executive Director, Joan Mitchell Foundation; and Christine J. Vincent, Study Director, The Aspen Institute. Organized by the Harvard Art Museums, the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University, and the Department of History of Art and Architecture, the discussion, moderated by Marion R. Fremont-Smith, Senior Research Fellow at the Hauser Center, aimed to explore the appropriate role of these foundations in the crowded and complicated landscape of "art patrimony."

As the artists whose legacies spawned these foundations, each organization stressed its unique character and policies of operation. Through the panelists’ introductions alone, it quickly became apparent that while some organizations are grant making, like the Joan Mitchell Foundation—which allocates a stunning million dollars per year to individual artists—others exist solely to oversee exhibitions of their own artist’s oeuvre with integrity. Where some take issue with grant-recipients joining foundation boards, others welcome the input of those artists who have benefited from their support. Charles Bergman made special note of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s "extremely permissible" approach to how a beneficiary can spend his or her grant. "We provide money to hire a baby-sitter, so that a single parent can spend more time in the studio, or money to rent a truck to transport sculpture," said Bergman.

On a few matters, the panel appeared in almost unanimous agreement. Speaking for his colleagues, Bergman cited the importance of, above all, maintaining the "spirit of the artist in the grant-giving." For the Pollock-Krasner Foundation that means aiding artists across the globe on the basis of financial need and recognizable merit, in a way that honors the ideals of Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock, who established the foundation. Echoing Bergman, Carolyn Somers talked about the "standard of excellence" that the organization demands of its programming, in keeping with "Joan’s legacy."

And where their founders may have lived in the pre-digital age, many organizations underscored the importance of maintaining a global outlook. "It’s a pretty small world," said Somers. "Artists talk to each other. We should be part of [that dialogue.]" Perhaps because of their shared focus on enriching the lives of contemporary artists, most panelists firmly agreed that what they aren’t doing is dedicating their resources to enhancing the market value of their namesakes. Jack Cowart, of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation quipped that it’s "not our goal to be cheerleaders." With a perceptibly proud smile, Somers added, "Occasionally, we buy work to fill in a gap that we’re missing [in our collection.] But right now, we probably couldn’t afford to buy her work anyway."