Artist Philanthropy: Growing in Numbers and Strength

Artists, like most people, don’t live their lives as a series of sentences, but rather a series of clauses–each one ending in a semi-colon, just waiting to be continued.  

Death is no exception, and when that last chapter ends, perhaps the best way to understand these pieces that live on with their names is to look at them as epilogues. They not only wrap up the artist’s life, but also preface the next volume of creative legacy by preserving a vision that opens chapters for future generations to follow.

The Aspen Institute released a study last November called The Artist as Philanthropist: Strengthening the Next Generation of Artist Endowed Foundations.  In their two-volume report that looked at 239 organizations, they found that art philanthropy is on the rise.  

Artist-endowed foundations have been around since the late 19th century, when Boston architect Arthur Rotch established the Rotch Travelling Scholarship in 1883.  Their numbers started growing in the 60s and 70s, “when a new wave of philanthropy was drawing on the success of prominent post-war artists.”  

Though many keep a modest profile, the two most well-known foundations are the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the largest U.S. donor to individual artists (more than $54 million in over 3,400 grants since 1985), and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which holds the largest asset base at $395 million.  

They may only make up one-tenth of a percent of America’s 71,000 private foundations, but “artist-endowed foundations are a sleeping giant of philanthropy,” reported The Art Newspaper.  Their numbers have grown to almost 300, making up $2.7 billion in assets.  

US foundations as a whole have a combined asset of half a trillion dollars.  They’re also becoming the backbone of museums, either through donating grants or collections, and doing so has kept the ideals of now-deceased artists well-preserved in curatorial decisions.  

The most recent example involved the Smithsonian Museum’s National Portrait Gallery, which set a precedent in December when it decided to swiftly bow to GOP pressure and remove a piece of video art deemed controversial.  

The Andy Warhol Foundation and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, both donors to the exhibition, announced that they would stop funding Smithsonian shows if the video wasn’t restored, and the Alexander Calder Foundation cancelled its plans to loan the Smithsonian a sculpture for a future exhibition.  The video was never restored, but instead recently purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art for their current exhibition of contemporary art.

While foundations established by artists tend to be small, with 73% reporting assets under $5 million, their numbers almost doubled between 1996 and 2005, and their combined assets more than tripled.  

The 30 most active foundations gave out a combined sum of $52.5 million in grants in 2008, comparable to the Ford Foundation ($54.1 million) and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation ($55.3 million).  

Close to half of all assets held by artist-endowed foundations are artworks, which makes it no surprise that more than half of the 125 foundations with assets over $1 million actively contribute to museum collections.  

Some of the more generous foundations still have living donors, including the Alex Katz Foundation, which awarded $2.9 million in 2008; the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, which award $1.1 million in 2008; and the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, which awarded $784,000 in 2008.

Optimistic?  You bet.  But apparently not enough to convince most of today’s living artists to start foundations in their own name.  The study also found that the average age of artists who set up foundations rose from 64 in 1986 to 74 in 2005 and that the portion of foundations formed after the artist’s death has risen from 50% in 1986 to 69% as of 2000.  

It’s a trend that many hope to see reversed.  “To relegate philanthropic activity to a foundation to be created after the death of the artist is to miss the opportunity of having one’s own life enriched by the satisfaction of creative philanthropy,” said Charles Bergman, chairman and CEO of the Pollack-Krasner Foundation.

The most important finding?  Despite slumped art market sales and a quicksand economy, these foundations are staying active in both the private and public spheres, preserving past legacies through collections and archives, as well as providing the necessary funds and grants to help new artists progress their aesthetic expression even further.  

They’re contributing artworks and operating exhibition programs through curation, artist residency programs, and art education.  We see the political right opt towards pulling arts funding rather than tax the richest margin of America, and so these foundations are stepping in as the new bloodlines of museums, pulsing wherever they can to make sure that art prevails by answering to our collective creative consciences, not special interests and lobbyists.  

At a time when “taxpayer money” has become the new code word for censorship and government wants its say in things it doesn’t even help finance, these artist-endowed foundations have become our insurance plan against disintegrating into cultural deprivation.

It will be interesting to see how these artist-endowed foundations will fare out as the economy continues to struggle on its rebound, especially because most of these organizations’ assets are in material artworks as opposed to stocks and public markets. 

However, with Paris’ new art stock exchange hoping to expand to the United States, that may change.  “Though a small portion of all private foundations,” The Aspen Institute prefaced, “these distinctively endowed entities are growing in number and as such, represent a potential force shaping cultural philanthropy and stewarding this country’s postwar and contemporary art patrimony.”  

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Photo courtesy of Ludovic Bertron via Flickr


johan l.
paul l7 years ago

Bring art back into the schools!
Where will the next generation of artists come from!

Susan T.
Susan T7 years ago

I think it's great that artist foundations can help push back a bit against the incoming wave of censorship, although I note that the Smithsonian did not restore the controversial video. What was the outcome of that? Are the foundations who protested no longer donating to Smithsonian shows?

Only superstars in the art world can afford to start a foundation, but I think it's great if they do - especially if some of the purpose is to help younger struggling artists. If you are not among the perhaps 1% of artists who are mega successful, you are most likely struggling to get by or making art part time.

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado7 years ago

Thanks for the article. Good Reading!

Gloria H.
Gloria H7 years ago

too bad they have taken art out of the schools.
Many artists are free thinkers. Right brained, coloring outside of the line, thinking outside of the box. Most artists create in solitude- introverts.(perhaps Andy Warhol was an exception-and, I don't think he was THAT good as an artist). Many politicians are extroverts- attention seeking b.s'ers that couldn't draw a line, nor draw a paycheck in the real world. They have a case of palette envy!

John A.
Past Member 7 years ago

Thank you! Support of the arts is needed!

Past Member 7 years ago

really it isn't enough to get a celebrity to endorse something while they are you want his name after he's dead...great...

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Ernie Miller
william Miller7 years ago

that is great I wonder how an artest goes about getting a grant? or how hard it is to leafe money to an exhisting endowment?

Tom Sullivan
Tom C Sullivan7 years ago

I think it is great that artist get involved with a cause. They have done a world of good.

Empress Ginger
Ginger Strivelli7 years ago

Art is undervalued by modern culture. "Math and science' pushing in our schools have pushed art to a once a week or once every other week lesson...the greedy yuppie career driven culture has dismissed the path creative people to be a 'failure.' It is just tragic.