The Artist as Philanthropist

Strengthening the Next Generation of Artist-Endowed Foundations

Review by András Szántó

Volume 1, Findings: Overview of the Field, 504 pages; Volume 2, Considerations in Foundation Practice, 547 pages; 2010, Aspen Institute, Washington, DC

Foundations established by visual artists remain something of a mystery. Until recently, their operations were rarely appreciated or even understood beyond a narrow circle of philanthropic professionals. Lately, however, the field has begun to emerge from obscurity.

In 2000, a group of executives created the Council of Artists Foundations to network and share ideas. And November 2010 saw the release of Christine Vincent's The Artist as Philanthropist: Strengthening the Next Generation of Artist-Endowed Foundations, a study intended to ensure that resources left by artists “are put to optimal charitable use.” The massive two-volume report (disclosure: I wrote a chapter on foundations and the press) is chockablock with data, based on 239 organizations with available information, and suggestions about effective practices for artist-philanthropists.

“There is much more to artists and philanthropy than meets the eye,” said Vincent, a former Ford Foundation executive. Her study surveys a surprisingly long and varied history, which began in 1883 with the establishment of a scholarship by Boston architect Arthur Rotch, followed by the Tiffany Foundation in 1918 and the Samson Foundation in 1959. More foundations were launched by artists in the 1960s, when Isamu Noguchi set up an organization and Jerome Hill, a wealthy filmmaker and painter, created the Jerome Foundation. The list of start-ups since 1970 reads like a modern art pantheon: Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman, Motherwell, Cornell, Frankenthaler, Mapplethorpe, Haring, Francis, Rauschenberg, Rivers, Mitchell, Avedon, Ritts, Parks, Twombly, Bourgeois, Wyeth, Johns—the list goes on.

The most widely recognized entities in the sector are the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (the largest US donor to individual artists, with more than 3,400 grants awarded since 1985, totaling more than $54 million) and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which has the largest asset base ($395 million in 2008). Most artist-endowed foundations, however, keep a much lower profile. Hundreds of artist foundations exist as modestly funded shells, awaiting an eventual bequest.

According to foundation experts, several dilemmas loom over the field as it emerges from infancy. First, the scope of activity: should a foundation focus on educational and research activities, or should it sell assets to fund grants (or some mix of the two)?

The reliance on art as an asset gives rise to unique complications. If a foundation declares its art holdings as “charitable use assets,” it must put them to charitable use. According to the Aspen study, more than half of all artist foundation assets—most being artworks—are designated this way

Second, how to deal with family members and “insiders”—dealers, assistants, collectors, friends—who may have a personal stake in the market value of the artist?

Third, how to maximize professionalism and impact? Larger foundations are experimenting with ways to offer expertise to smaller ones. There is talk of pooling resources. Some time-consuming and controversial activities, including authentication, which has landed some foundations in hot water, may lend themselves to centralization.

While some of these issues are likely to attract scrutiny, there can be no doubt that artist-endowed foundations are going to be increasingly vital for museums. One-quarter of more than 125 foundations with assets over $1 million are actively contributing to collections—mostly works by the benefactor but also creations by other artists whom the donor may have known and collected.

The largest donations have helped establish museums, curatorial departments, and new facilities and collections. So-called estate distribution foundations are specifically formed to disburse an artist's assets remaining after other bequests, the Georgia O'Keefe Foundation being the prime example. For recipient institutions, the stakes can be momentous. The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation has granted more than 250 artworks to thirty-four museums in the United States and abroad.

Artist-endowed foundations are a sleeping giant of philanthropy. They are rapidly expanding in number—close to three hundred have been identified in the United States at the last count—and financial strength, commanding approximately $2.7 billion in combined assets. That's a relatively modest sum next to the half-trillion dollars held in total by US foundations. But artist-endowed foundations are especially important in the art world. Although some do fund noncultural causes, many stay focused on the arts, bestowing their largesse on museums, research, publications, education, scholarships, and various means of support for living artists. And with an unprecedented cohort of well-to-do painters and sculptors among the older generations, the golden age of artist foundations may yet be ahead.