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Rise Of The Artist-Endowed Foundations

If you’re keen on the works of art market darling Alexander Calder, the 20th-century US artist famous for his mobile sculptures, you could try signing up for a VIP tour this week organised by Frieze Art Fair New York that takes in the Calder Foundation.


Based in Chelsea in Manhattan, the influential foundation, normally closed to the public, is opening the doors to its 12,000 sq ft venue. Seeing this collection of 600 sculptures – from stabiles to standing mobiles and outdoor works – and thousands of paintings, the Frieze luminaries will gain a remarkable insight into the kinetic art pioneer, who bent and twisted wire to create three-dimensional figures in space.


There is another reason why this exclusive viewing should excite collectors, dealers and curators. Works by other key modernists such as Kurt Schwitters, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró and Francis Picabia are on show in the foundation, all part of the collection Calder built up over his life. “He mainly traded works with his peers,” says Alexander SC Rower, the artist’s grandson, who established the foundation 25 years ago, pointing out that Miró and Calder exchanged pieces in 1947. This trove of master works, worth tens of millions of dollars, also includes striking art by Picasso, Chagall and Jean Arp.


“Our lasting legacy, apart from trawling eBay for awful rip-offs, is working on focused exhibitions,” adds Rower, stressing that works drawn from the collection are always on loan to major shows worldwide, with pieces currently dispatched to venues in Italy and the Netherlands. Artists today are indebted to the late sculptor in other ways – through, for instance, an artist-in-residence programme based at Calder’s former atelier in Saché, central France.


Such activity helps maintain the profile of an artist whose market actually gained momentum during the downturn; in November 2010, Christie’s New York achieved a Calder auction record of $6.4m for the 1973 sheet metal sculpture “Red Curlicue”. So does the foundation have any sway over the market? Rower is at pains to emphasise that “we do not do authentication”. Instead, his foundation offers ambiguous-sounding “examinations”, whereby the foundation committee assesses possible pieces “for owners, not third parties”.


But doesn’t sitting on the fence mean that Calder’s market remains unmonitored? “If the foundation becomes aware of an issue, we take action,” says Rower. Owners of works attributed to Calder, meanwhile, may apply to register their items in the foundation’s impressive archive, which consists of 22,000 works and 130,000 documents.


Keeping this operation solvent is the responsibility of Rower, who explains that a trust established in 1987 by his grandmother and the artist’s widow, Louisa James Calder, provided the foundation with a cash injection at its inception. There is no endowment and the organisation subsists on donations; when asked if the foundation ever sells works, Rower says the Calder Estate, “a completely separate entity loosely made up of family members, might sell something”.


Last year, Rower’s mother, Mary Calder Rower, bequeathed 1,104 works, worth $163m, to the foundation; a selection of these are set to go on show in a new Calder gallery opening at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel this month.


Numerous other artists’ foundations are making their presence felt across America. Think of a leading modern US-based artist and they’ll probably have established an artist-endowed foundation: around 300 such bodies bestow largesse from the legacies of modern art titans such as Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly, Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe.


“Artist-endowed foundations are the sleeping giants of philanthropy,” says András Szántó, a New York-based analyst and cultural consultant. Indeed, these charitable foundations, endowed by an artist with assets (archives, property and art among them) used for the public good, are quietly but dramatically changing the US art landscape through their grant-making programmes, scholarship, research activities and contributions to museum collections. Artists seem to prefer forming foundations posthumously because of estate tax incentives. Licensing and copyright fees, as well as sales on the art market, keep these philanthropic powerhouses ticking over.


“It’s up to individual artists how their foundations are run. Most of the foundations seem to sell their art assets. For practical purposes, artists leave art, not money,” says Joel Wachs, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. “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?” says Szántó.


The hitherto low-key Rauschenberg Foundation, founded in 1990 by the US artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), made waves recently when it announced plans to sell works collected by the pivotal pop artist to boost its “endowment-style” fund. According to The Art Newspaper, pieces by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Ed Ruscha and Brice Marden, with a hefty $40m valuation, were consigned to the Gagosian Gallery last year.


Selling such top-dollar art, as well as works by the artist and properties owned in New York by Rauschenberg, should help the foundation to reach its target investment figure of $350m. The subsequent aim is to increase grants, from a total of around $2m this year to around $20m by 2027. The grant programme reflects the “defining values of Rauschenberg’s work: risk-taking, collaboration, innovation and experimentation”, says the foundation’s executive director Christy MacLear, highlighting its Artist as Activist editioned print project and Seed grants. All these support grassroots organisations.


In a significant move, the assets of Rauschenberg’s estate are being transferred to the foundation. Turning Rauschenberg’s former home on Manhattan’s Lafayette Street into a scholarship centre, and creating a multi-volume catalogue raisonné in print and digital form should also ensure that the artist’s name and work endure.


Making sure that Warhol remains famous for longer than 15 minutes is mainly down to the high-profile New York-based Warhol Foundation, set up on the artist’s death in 1987. Decreeing that his estate be devoted “to the advancement of the visual arts”, Warhol left more than 100,000 works to the foundation; 4,000 were donated to the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh. “We then began to sell works of art and license his name and images,” says Wachs. “All of the earnings from these royalties and proceeds fund our grants; our endowment is approaching a quarter of a billion dollars.” The same amount has been distributed in grants since the foundation’s launch.


The Warhol Foundation is now spending $1m annually on further catalogues raisonnés, having completed three volumes of the catalogue documenting painting and sculpture until 1974. Wachs anticipates at least three more volumes for the 1970s and four for the 1980s, as well as a drawings compendium.


Serving scholarship and not the market appears to be the foundation’s priority, although the art trade awaits these future volumes with interest, especially since the foundation’s authentication board was dissolved earlier this year.


Given the various dealers, collectors, family members and others who may feel they have a personal claim on an artist, the task of establishing a foundation looks headache-inducing. But MacLear is reassuring. “During the establishment of a foundation, challenges like ‘personal stake’ get extinguished through the implementation of traditional business processes such as multiple bids, transparent reporting and board regulation,” she says. “Family members must be recused from decisions of direct conflict of interest.”


The greatest challenge, for a start-up private operating foundation, she adds, is making the transition from an unregulated art industry player to a highly regulated non-profit entity.


Such sticky issues aside, artists’ foundations could, one day, match or even top government funding for the visual arts in America. Szántó stresses that their full impact is yet to be felt. “With an unprecedented cohort of well-to-do painters and sculptors among the older generation,” he says, “the golden age of artist foundations may yet be ahead.” Wachs, meanwhile, is evangelical, declaring: “Successful artists have a unique opportunity to support those artists that come after them.”


FT Magazine\

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