Artists' Foundations Help Themselves and Other Artists

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Many successful people have time to plan their legacies, but the last months of Nancy Graves’ life were hectic. In May of 1995, the 55 year-old sculptor was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and five months later she was dead. With no heirs, she had to decide quickly what to do with her belongings and wealth. Like a number of other artists with significant holdings of artwork and other assets, she created a nonprofit foundation through her will to shelter her estate from high death taxes. But what sort of foundation should this be? What would be its purpose? Most artists’ foundations serve the posthumous interests of the artists, as trustees and administrators arrange exhibitions of their work, prepare a catalogue raisonne, inventory work and make documents and archival material available to scholars. The Henry Moore Foundation in England, for instance, was set up in 1977 to “advance the education of the public by promoting their appreciation of the fine arts, particularly the work of Henry Moore.” In somewhat more inflated language, the foundation created by Salvador Dali in 1983 in Spain aims to “promote, boost, divulge, lend prestige to, protect and defend in Spain and in any other country the artistic, cultural and intellectual oeuvre of the painter…and the universal recognition of his contribution to the Fine Arts, culture and contemporary thought.”

Instead, Graves’ idea of the type of foundation she wanted was modeled on those set up by Adolph Gottlieb and Lee Krasner, whose primary purpose is to provide grant awards to artists in need.

Perhaps some readers who are in the position to be helpful not only to their heirs but to the larger artist community might want to do the same.

Fifty or even 30 years ago, there were not so many artists’ foundations. However, “post-1960 artists have done much better than many earlier artists who often didn’t have the wherewithal to set up a foundation,” said Sanford Hirsch, executive director of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, which has been providing individual support and emergency grants to artists since 1976. There are more now, set up by the artists in advance or by their families. The grant program at the George and Helen Segal Foundation was designed by the artist’s widow and daughter based on his “wish to be helpful to artists,” said Rena Segal, the sculptor’s daughter and vice-president of the foundation. The will of painter Joan Mitchell indicated a desire “to support painters and sculptors,” according to Shervone Neckles Ortiz, a program associate at the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

Nancy Graves specifically wanted to help artists like herself, and her foundation’s grant program offers financial assistance to artists looking to experiment with materials and methods, “who wish to have the opportunity to master a technique, medium or discipline that is different from the one in which he or she is primarily recognized,” according to the foundation’s Web site. Graves herself “was criticized for working in different media, whether in sculpture – she first created polychrome pieces and later produced the colorfully painted works for which she may be best known – and in other media, such as photography and film, sets and costume design, as well as painting, the medium in which she earned her MFA,” said Christina Hunter, director of the New York-based Nancy Graves Foundation. “She wanted to encourage artists to do the same.”

With little time to live, Graves “wanted to help artists in whatever way she could,” Hunter stated, noting that the artist donated her 5,000-book library to the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York and her art materials to an art school in Santa Fe. In terms of her money, however, she “knew there was a need for more individual grants to artists.”

The Aspen Institute, a policy research organization in Washington, D.C., has identified 363 artist-endowed foundations with $3.48 billion in aggregate assets in 2010. Between 1996 and 2010, those assets have increased 360 percent, which reflects the number of new artist foundations that have come into existence during that period of time. Christine J. Vincent, a director at The Aspen Institute, claimed that it isn’t only artist-endowed foundations that have arisen to fill a gap in fellowship support for artists, citing the Los Angeles-based United States Artists, which was started by four foundations (Ford, Prudential Rasmuson and Rockefeller) in 2005 and provides fellowships of $50,000 apiece to 50 artists around the country in eight disciplines. Another is the New York City-based Creative Capital, which was given its initial support in 1999 by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and provides project grants of $50,000, as well as professional development services, to artists throughout the U.S. “There are many more programs supporting artists since the early 1990s,” she said. “It’s a trend, and artist foundations are part of that.”