Profiles of Arts Grantmakers

The Peter Norton Family Foundation

Claire Peeps

Art collector, philanthropist, and software entrepreneur Peter Norton, inventor of Norton Utilities, established his family foundation with his wife Eileen Norton in 1989. Based in Santa Monica, California, the Foundation has an endowment of approximately $33 million; its giving last year was close to $4.5 million. The primary focus of the Foundation is on contemporary visual arts nationwide. It also provides support to human and social service organizations in the Southern California region, and has recently developed an emerging focus on American theater, with grants to theater companies in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere. In addition to making donor-directed grants, the Foundation provides support through two signature programs, its Monthly Grants and its innovative Curator's Grant programs.

The Monthly Grants program is designed to be as simple as possible, requiring only a brief project description and statement of need. The program favors risk-taking contemporary arts projects that might not happen without Norton Foundation support — unusual exhibitions involving, for example, emerging or lesser-known artists, commissions for new works, publications, or the mounting of symposia. Typically the Foundation awards six to eight Monthly Grants in the arts and social services combined, ranging from $5,000 - $15,000.

Among recent visual arts grants made by the Peter Norton Family Foundation are awards to the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles, Thread Wax Space in New York City, the D.U.M.B.O Arts Center in Brooklyn, and the Studio Museum of Harlem. The Foundation's giving has been characterized by its equal willingness to support small and large organizations, operating in a single neighborhood or on the global scale.

The Curator's Grant program, established in 1990, makes two or three grants annually of $50,000 each to contemporary arts curators at U.S.-based arts institutions. The funds are to be used at the curator's discretion for purchasing works of art for their organizations. The curators honored through this program are selected by invitation rather than by application. The program is intended to reward and encourage fresh thinking by curators, to build the collections of museums and provide much-needed sales to artists. Over the years, the program has highlighted several curators early in their careers, who have gone on to achieve broad national and international recognition for their work. The program has also accommodated curators at non-collecting institutions. Curator Suzanne Ghez at the Renaissance Society, for example, received a Curator's Grant in 1996 that enabled her to commission artists in residence at the University of Chicago.

An unexpected boon of the Curator's Grant program has been the collegial network it has established among curators across the country, who otherwise have no organized forum to address their common concerns. The Foundation convenes the full group of award recipients every two years for a two-day retreat on issues confronting curators who specialize in the works of living artists. In 1997, the Foundation took its full complement of Curator's Grant recipients to the Johannesburg Biennial in South Africa. In 1999, they met at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. At that meeting, each curator was invited to bring along a younger curator from any institution, thus doubling the size of the group and scope of the dialogue. The curators are now in the process of founding their own professional organization as an outgrowth of these gatherings, a development that Norton Foundation's Kris Kuramitsu cites as “especially gratifying.”

The Norton Family Foundation is managed by executive director Anne Etheridge, who oversees giving in the area of health and human services and who has been very involved nationally in promoting women's philanthropy through the Council on Foundations. She is chairing the Southern California Association of Philanthropy's new initiative, Women Give! The Foundation's art programs are directed by Kris Kuramitsu, who also serves as the curator of the Norton's private art collection. Given the Foundation's high-tech origins, it is interesting to note that the Foundation maintains no Web site and that it takes an intimate, low-profile approach to its grantmaking.

Claire Peeps is executive director, Durfee Foundation.