Virtuous Circles of Support

Artists Funding the Arts

Claudia J. Bach

The quest for support for the arts is continuous. We search for ways to seed or increase the flow of dollars, looking for more philanthropic capacity from every purse. It is never as bounteous as the need.

What role do artists play in this support, and how might we enhance a virtuous circle of giving? A virtuous circle is defined as a chain of events in which one desirable occurrence leads to another, which further promotes the first occurrence and so on. How are artists — many of whom have been the recipients of grants, residencies, or other direct or indirect funding — engaging in philanthropy to support other artists and the arts more broadly?

Many artists struggle to reap substantial economic rewards from their artistic practice, yet there are artists working in all disciplines whose creative work has yielded wealth: visual artists whose paintings command six figures or much more in a vibrant art market, writers whose books are consistent best sellers, musicians whose songs are on everyone’s playlist, performers whose involvement ensures box office success. These artists are joined by many more who may be less well known but have accrued significant assets through their creative work as well as from other sources. Financial success creates opportunities and complex decision making regarding estate planning and often philanthropy.

Artists have always found ways to give back, whether to a specific community or a specific cause, via mentoring other artists, encouraging transmission of cultural heritage, and inspiring others to join them in support of a passionately held belief. Donating a work of art to an auction, playing a benefit performance, offering counsel and encouragement, and giving financial contributions are regular acts by artists in every community across the nation. There is no question that artists are often generous. Those who have been fortunate enough to receive wealth from their art are often generous in creative ways, such as best-selling writer James Patterson’s unexpected holiday bonuses for workers at independent bookstores in 2016 to honor their role in nurturing readers.

In this article we look beyond these acts to consider how artists and their estates make intentional, long-term, or sustained commitments specifically focused on arts philanthropy. Of special interest are ways artists are supporting other artists.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Five stages of the creative life of an artist were identified by Marc Zegans in the GIA Reader’s summer 2017 issue. The final stages of attaining eminence and crafting legacy underscore the very issues that influence philanthropic impulses. Zegans describes the point at which the artist becomes acutely aware that life is finite and how this can spur fecundity in creative work along with “the desire to bestow wisdom on those who seek it, and to dispense what gifts he or she has still to offer, a process that continues, through legacy, beyond the artist’s physical death.”

How best can artists share wisdom, creative accomplishments, and assets in their final decades and shape what is to be left behind? Material works of visual art, musical scores, choreographic documentation, written manuscripts, media, and newly emerging forms as well as intellectual property and rights each present thorny legacy issues for artists to wrestle with. Additionally, an artist may wish to inspire, encourage, and support future artists or enable arts experiences for audiences.

An artist’s philanthropic legacy can follow a number of pathways. Those with significant assets may create an individual artist-endowed foundation to manage the artist’s works of art and legacy and to carry out philanthropic intent. Artists may look to existing community foundations to conduct their charitable efforts. Other artists, or their estates, choose to make a bequest to one or more nonprofit organizations, such as museums, educational entities, or artists’ service organizations. In some cases, artists choose to create a nonprofit arts organization during their lifetime that may receive additional support through a bequest from their estate upon their death. Artists who decide that the creation of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is not warranted may work with a fiscal sponsor or other intermediary to set the course for a program they hope will evolve beyond their lifetime. Undoubtedly new creative options will continue to be developed by artists and their estates in years to come.

Artist-Endowed Foundations

The Aspen Institute has been a leader in exploring visual artist–connected philanthropy with their Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative (AEFI). The national research the institute has conducted since 2007, under the guidance of study director Christine J. Vincent, has identified and documented the growth of these relatively recent foundations. An annual invitational AEFI leadership forum further advances awareness and thinking about these foundations and their growing impact on cultural philanthropy.

AEFI has identified more than 350 foundations endowed by visual artists in the United States. While this may seem like a modest number among the more than 105,000 private foundations identified by the National Center for Charitable Statistics, these foundations hold assets that continue to grow exponentially. AEFI’s research estimates that in the five-year period ending in 2015, the field’s aggregate assets doubled in value to more than $7 billion. These foundations are significant sources of arts funding, of which more than 80 percent of their reported grantmaking is directed to the sector.

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Joan Mitchell Foundation, Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and many others have had a powerful impact on the arts-funding landscape. Such foundations engage in robust philanthropy at the same time that they manage artistic stewardship. Each foundation navigates its own complex mix of research, promotion, and protection of the artist’s legacy in addition to philanthropy.1

Some artist-founders are actively engaged in the design and direction of their foundations, but in all cases the hands-on aspect is finite — no artist lives forever. Clarity of intent is critical in the philanthropic work that follows. The Rauschenberg Foundation, started in 1990 and operated with the artist’s involvement prior to his death in 2008, seeks to embody “the same fearlessness, innovation, and multidisciplinary approach that Rauschenberg exemplified in both his art and philanthropic endeavors.” There is a balance between increasing public access to and promoting scholarship of Rauschenberg’s artwork, cultivating emerging and established artists, and developing philanthropic initiatives that connect art, culture, and creativity with issues such as climate change. Other visual artists’ foundations reflect a similar fusion: attending to artistic legacy alongside implementation of philanthropic goals, regardless of the scale of the assets held.

Visual artists are not the only artists creating foundations, though there is less research available on foundations endowed by musicians, writers, actors, dancers, and other artists. Regardless of the discipline, foundations with living donors may not legally engage in legacy stewardship during the artist’s lifetime to avoid self-dealing. Foundations endowed by the estate of an artist — such as the Jerome Robbins Foundation and the Ray Charles Foundation — are active in stewarding the legacy of the deceased artist. Foundations endowed by living artists, such as the Kevin Spacey Foundation, which supports those wishing to pursue a career in the performing arts or film, are engaged only in philanthropy during the artist’s lifetime. Any efforts to manage the artist’s legacy can occur only after the death of the artist.

One of the earliest artist-endowed foundations is the Herb Alpert Foundation, created in 1988. The musician Herb Alpert, now in his eighties, continues to be actively involved in philanthropy that is largely focused on the arts and arts education. The actress and singer Dolly Parton founded Imagination Library in 1995, providing books for preschool children in the rural Tennessee county in which she grew up, to foster a love of reading. Over 1,600 communities in the United States and beyond now provide books to over a million children every month in partnership with the Dollywood Foundation, which provides step-by-step assistance for starting a local program. Each foundation’s charitable giving reflects the specific interests and inclinations of the artist, often aligning with their artistic discipline.

A Foundation Not of One’s Own

The complexity and cost of creating an artist-endowed foundation and concerns that the assets available are too limited and the burdens of management too great lead many artists to look toward other avenues.

Artists’ Legacy Foundation (ALF), founded in 2000, has sought to aggregate the management of artistic works, archives, and related legacy activities for multiple painters and sculptors, along with granting an annual unrestricted artist award. Today it actively manages the legacy of Viola Frey. Painter Squeak Carnwath has promised the foundation her estate, and they anticipate bequests from other artists. A potential artist “must be interested not only in stewardship of their legacy, but in philanthropy,” explains executive director Pauline Shaver.

More than 750 existing community foundations across the country are positioned to assist with the philanthropic dimension of an artist’s estate. They are not in the business of promoting the legacy of an artist through access, management, or large sales of the artist’s work, nor are they equipped to handle archives and artwork. Many are, however, able to handle the sale of “complex assets,” such as real estate and selected marketable art. There is interest, but less experience and expertise, in handling artists’ intellectual property and artists’ copyrights, which may represent considerable future sources of income.

A donor-advised fund (DAF) at a community foundation permits the artist to indicate the intent that drives the fund’s charitable giving and may specifically identify organizations that support artists and the arts. The Seattle Foundation, for example, manages DAFs set up by visual artists, filmmakers, literary artists, and musicians, with each fund reflecting that artist’s philanthropic priorities. While the artist is alive, these are known as lifetime DAFs and usually have active involvement from the artist. Upon the artist’s death, the fund becomes a legacy DAF that is advised by designated individuals or, if desired, by professional foundation staff. The estate is relieved of philanthropy management responsibilities. Heirs and representatives provide recommendations that support the fund’s established intent. These recommendations are almost always fully acted on, though the final decision making lies legally with the community foundation’s board. The skills of community foundation staff can be valuable when working with designated family members, friends, or content experts with differing viewpoints or divergent generational perspectives on allocation of funding.

Philanthropy via Arts Organizations

A direct bequest to an existing nonprofit arts organization or institution is the simplest way for an artist, or their estate, to fulfill a charitable goal in the arts. The bequest can be an always appreciated infusion of unrestricted funds to support an organization, a gift for a designated purpose, or an endowed gift to support a new or existing program or a fellowship in the artist’s discipline or in alignment with their values. Artist service organizations, such as Artist Trust, or discipline-specific organizations, such as the Recording Academy’s GRAMMY Foundation, are gateways to various programs that benefit artists, access, or art education.

Planned giving, the process of working directly with the organization about the intended gift, can shape how the organization will use the funds. Some artists have found ways to link their arts philanthropy with their personal artistic stewardship goals, such as by donating a home or studio with adequate endowed funds to support a residency program while preserving and presenting their artworks and providing a library on-site. Such bequests may include works of art intended for sale by the organization to fund specific aspects of the bequest.

There is increasing interest in leaving intellectual property or selected copyrights to support arts organizations, especially by writers and musicians. It is hoped that these rights can result in an ongoing, if inconsistent, source of funding as the works are kept in circulation, rediscovered, or presented in new formats in the future. Directing such funds to the intended nonprofit is easiest when the artist has a dealer, agency, or other entity to oversee this. It is challenging for most arts organizations to directly harvest such funds; they are not generally equipped to monitor or collect them. There is value in exploring better ways to harness these future benefits that artists may wish to bequeath.

Artists also create and endow new arts organizations or augment existing arts organizations with new facilities and programs. Baryshnikov Arts Center is a multifaceted arts center in New York City created in 2005 by the dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Actor, comedian, director, and Chicano art collector Cheech Marin is moving forward on creation of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture, and Industry, which will be affiliated with the Riverside Art Museum and will include a center for academic study of Chicano art.

Artist Mark Bradford created Art + Practice, a social justice arts and education organization in Los Angeles, seeding it with funds from his 2009 $500,000 (today $625,000) no-strings-attached MacArthur Fellowship. Saxophonist Steve Coleman has put his 2104 MacArthur funds toward a program that brings musicians together for residencies, and poet Claudia Rankine is using her 2016 award to help establish the Racial Imaginary Institute, where artists present work exploring race and the creative imagination. These and many other artists are finding ways to leverage grant support to advance the work of other artists, provide arts education, or put art at the center of social concerns. Often neither the artist nor the funder trumpets the source of this support, and so the genesis of these catalytic funds remains below the philanthropy radar.

Navigating the Estate Planning Path

Donald Judd was the rare artist who approached legacy with crystalline intent, founding the Chinati Foundation in 1986 to support permanent installations in Marfa, Texas, not only of his work but large-scale work of his contemporaries. Subsequent to his death in 1994, the Judd Foundation was also formed and is actively managed by his two children.

At the other end of the spectrum we see the legal gyre resulting from Prince’s estate following his death in 2016 without clear directives. One can only imagine the potential impact that could have resulted had that financial juggernaut been largely directed toward music philanthropy. Resources on that scale could easily have created a shift in arts support across the nation had they been earmarked for something like music education.

Procrastination and avoidance of estate planning are common not only for artists, though the stakes feel especially high when there is the risk of an artist’s work ending up in a dumpster, lost in the cloud, or mired in costly legal battles. Attorneys with expertise in estate planning are found throughout the country, but those with skill and deep expertise in artists’ issues are rare, and often the costs are daunting.

There have been efforts to assist artists, especially visual artists, in tackling estate planning. Notably, Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) initiative has resulted in publications addressing estate planning and archiving for visual artists. An earlier noteworthy effort was the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation’s 1998 A Visual Artist’s Guide to Estate Planning. A smattering of artist-focused and discipline-related tools and resources exist online, and various entities provide periodic workshops, yet estate planning is not a common practice among artists, nor is it actively promoted as part of career training. Informal peer-to-peer advice is often a key, if problematic, resource.

Players outside the nonprofit sector are exploring estate planning and management for artists. The visual arts in particular, helped by a robust international art marketplace, have spurred new and emerging approaches. The Institute of Artists’ Estates was created in Berlin in 2016 with a related publication, The Artist’s Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors and Heirs. KunstWorks, a recent Bay Area consultancy, focuses on assistance for artists, their heirs, and contemporary art collectors regarding preservation and public impact.

Most closely watched in the field is Sotheby’s recent entry into the world of estate planning, including assistance with the creation of individual foundations for visual artists. Art Agency, Partners, a subsidiary of Sotheby’s, hired Christy MacLear, former chief executive of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, in late 2016 to lead this effort. Her mandate is not only to deal with posthumous issues but also to actively work with major living artists as they plan their legacy and explore disposition of their assets. This territory is contested by galleries, who hold long-standing and deep relationships with blue-chip artists. There is some wariness about whether an auction house may be hard pressed to transcend its core business to effectively serve the artist’s legacy in full, but this approach is still in its infancy.

The world of music has less distinct lines between the nonprofit and commercial spheres, and this holds true in terms of legacy management. For example, Jampol Artist Management manages the estates of legendary musicians, including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, the Ramones, and Otis Redding. They seek new distribution channels, new technology, and other emerging resources to deploy intellectual property in ways that may not have been possible during an artist’s lifetime. Jampol has been instrumental in creating works for the stage and screen, such as the Broadway musical A Night with Janice Joplin, and they have created books, exhibitions, documentaries, and advertising that feature the artists they manage. In some quarters this has been referred to as “necro management” — management of the relentlessly growing pool of deceased artists whose estates can benefit financially from active management. How might such commercial legacy ventures be encouraged to fill philanthropic coffers for the arts?

A trend in artists’ estate planning is to move away from the concept of “in perpetuity.” The early generation of artist-endowed foundations is now outliving those who personally knew the artist, causing the relationship to the artist’s intent to shift with time. Spending down assets through grantmaking or direct bequests to organizations are tools that can fulfill the donor’s intent and minimize unforeseen future challenges. Artists creating foundations are increasingly considering “estate distribution foundations,” acknowledging that a defined period of time may be the most effective way to distribute their assets and fulfill their philanthropic goals. This is echoed in community foundations that see a move away from permanently endowed DAF funds and an inclination by donors to address charitable needs for the more foreseeable future, completing distribution of funds by a designated date.

The Other 99 Percent of Artists

The majority of artists do not hit the marketplace jackpot. Even so, many artists have accrued assets worthy of careful disposition. Their estate may include a home or studio, retirement investments, or other assets in addition to artistic works and the rights associated with them. These artists also wish to consider philanthropy that reflects their life’s work. They may hope to provide support that was meaningful to — or missing from — their career: arts access for children, working with inspiring professional artists, access to cultural elders, or a grant at a critical moment in creative development. Giving back is on their radar, but this has not necessarily been articulated or planned for in a way that guarantees this intent will be carried out during their lifetime or after their death.

In 2016 I hosted with Artist Trust and with support from the Joan Mitchell Foundation a series of focus groups exploring current estate and legacy issues in the visual arts, music, and the literary arts. These conversations underscored how daunting the issue of legacy and estate planning is for most artists, even for those who have enjoyed success in their artistic career. Artists are worried about burdening children and friends with the legacy of their art, are stymied by the challenges of archiving their work for posterity, and flummoxed by issues of managing intellectual property and copyrights in the digital age and into the future. Most want to make sure their assets first go to support close family, but they also hope to find ways to support fellow artists and the arts ecosystem. Some are looking to give directly to arts or educational organizations with which they have a personal connection, or to support artists working in their discipline. Creating an individual artist-endowed foundation is not perceived as financially viable or desirable by most.

A conceptual model for a different kind of foundation was discussed. With the working title ArtistEstates, this entity would aggregate and manage or oversee the financial and intellectual property and other rights from the estates of numerous artists, and then distribute funding to the arts (with donor input), along with providing education and resources on estate and legacy planning for artists. It would not, however, manage the physical artwork and archives that bedevil most artists. Such an entity may serve the philanthropic needs of many artists by providing a vetted artist-focused estate mechanism including charitable support of the arts by artists. There was strong enthusiasm for future exploration and testing of this concept with the hope of national impact.

Closing the Circle

We must encourage and streamline the process of philanthropy for those who have spent their lifetime as artists, and who have the means to share resources. We need to clear a path from inclination to philanthropic action. The world of estate planning is extremely complex, and artists and their assets are extraordinarily varied. Regardless, efforts are required to buttress this philanthropic arena. “Hats off to Artists’ Legacy Foundation, but we need many more new ideas and models for shared platforms where artists may place their assets as cultural and philanthropic resources,” encourages Christine Vincent. It is necessary to consider bold experiments and to think systemically rather than at the granular level of each single artist’s estate. There will always be a handful of artists whose assets justify an artist-endowed foundation, but for the multitude of other artists this is not realistic. Some areas worthy of attention include the following:

  • Expanding and simplifying assistance for artists to address estate planning and arts philanthropy. Developing and testing new legacy management services, aggregated asset foundations, or other mechanisms to create efficiencies.
  • Ensuring that estate assets connected to artists’ copyrights and intellectual property rights are captured over time, and providing tools for channeling that resource to benefit other artists and the arts.
  • Exploring ways that community foundations might expand their capacities to serve artists and manage artistic assets including intel-lectual property and rights.
  • Continuing to research and share learnings from artist-endowed foundations, including foundations created by performing, media, and literary artists.

Pauline Shaver of Artists’ Legacy Foundation cogently observed, “We are living in a world where artists are empowered not only in their creative output, but in taking control of their financial influence.” Active philanthropy by artists can impact the shape and direction of the arts in this country. Multiple approaches are needed — from large artist-endowed foundations to modest bequests to local arts organizations — to assist artists in participating in a virtual circle in support of future artists and the arts.


  1. For a comprehensive exploration of artist-endowed foundations in the visual arts, see the Aspen Institute study “The Artist as Philanthropist: Strengthening the Next Generation of Artist-Endowed Foundations” (2010), “A Reading Guide to the Study Report for Artists and Their Family Members,” and the 2013 study update. An additional update is expected in late 2017.


Thanks to Sean Elwood, Creative Capital (retired); Marcia Fujimoto, Miller Nash; Graham & Dunn LLP; Wendy S. Goffe, Stoel Rives LLP; Shannon Halberstadt, Artist Trust; Barbara T. Hoffman, The Hoffman Law Group; Don Meyer, MacArthur Foundation; Fidelma McGinn, Seattle Foundation; Susan L. Peterson, Seattle Foundation; Ginny Ruffner, artist, and SOLA; Norie Sato, artist; Pauline Shaver, Artists’ Legacy Foundation; David Shields, author; Barbara Earl Thomas, artist and Lawrence Foundation; Christine Vincent, The Aspen Institute, AEFI; and numerous other artists and colleagues for conversations on this topic.