Radu Bercan/shutterstock

Radu Bercan/shutterstock

Last year I spoke with Christine J. Vincent, project director of the Aspen Institute’s Artist-Endowed Foundation Initiative (AEFI) about the growing footprint of artist-endowed foundations (AEF).

Vincent pointed to a confluence of drivers fueling the field’s expansion, including a red-hot global art market, an AEF-friendly federal tax code, and, most urgently, a growing recognition across the artist community around the importance of “legacy stewardship.”

Now comes a new report from the AEFI, Study Report Supplement 2018, which documents the extent to which artist-endowed foundations are reshaping modern arts philanthropy. The value of AEF assets more than doubled in the five-year period of 2011 through 2015, rising 120 percent to $7.66 billion from $3.48 billion. In comparison, assets grew 40 percent in that period at national foundations. In addition, more than 40 percent of the 433 AEFs identified by the study were created in the last decade and a half.

“The field’s transformational growth in just five years is eye-catching, but what’s really exciting is the robust, long-term increases in both its grant-making and its operation of cultural and educational programs—archives and study centers, exhibition programs, artists’ residencies, etc,” Vincent told Artnet. “This is terrific news.”

I encourage you to read the whole report. For the sake of brevity, I’d like to hit on a few key takeaways, starting with the economic drivers contributing to the growth of the AEF field.

Growth Drivers

AEFs’ asset growth is primarily attributed to the surging value of art. In 2010, AEFs reported aggregate assets of $3.48 billion, with $1.99 billion derived from art assets. 2015 saw those figures jump to $7.66 million and $5.37 billion, respectively. Art assets now account for 70 percent of the field’s overall assets. The study framed this economic backdrop accordingly:

Following 2010, an extended economic growth trend took the stock market to an unprecedented level. As a result, the global art market reached extraordinary heights and continued to broaden to new geographic regions and new modes, including the ever-expanding art fair industry and proliferating online sales platforms. While record-breaking sales were focused in particular areas of the market and on investor favorites, it is also the case that growing demand for product overall pushed the market, and the art world, into a reappraisal of many worthy artists who had not previously been acknowledged properly.

The study cited major bequests from AEFs associated with artists including Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler, Mike Kelley, LeRoy Neiman, Irving Penn, Robert Rauschenberg, Maurice Sendak, and Cy Twombly. Growth has also been driven by the rising value of art already held by foundations like the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, the Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, and the Richard Avedon Foundation.

Meanwhile, the number of “large” AEFs—defined as those with $50 million or more in assets—has grown from two in 1995 to 31 in 2015. Ten percent of artist-endowed foundations are now characterized as “large” foundations. By contrast, just two percent of foundations nationally carry the same designation. Looking ahead, the AEF field “will have an ever greater percentage of large foundations and an increasingly lesser percentage of very small foundations.”

A Surge in Grantmaking

The report found that the focus of the field’s grantmaking interest is squarely on the arts and culture, which represent 79 percent of all giving by AEFs that reported total giving of $100,000 or more in 2015. This growth has also generated a spike in operational costs. According to the study, charitable operating and administrative expenses, like costs to administer grantmaking programs and operate artist residencies, rose 405 percent to $88 million in the 15-year period beginning in 2001, likely “reflecting rising costs to care for and deploy significantly expanding art holdings.”

More broadly, while total giving by artist-endowed foundations increased 29 percent, rising to $90.17 million in 2015 from $69.99 million in 2010, foundations nationally saw a 36 percent increase in giving for this same period. The comparison reverses in the long view, however, with giving by artist-endowed foundations rising 131 percent in the 15-year period beginning 2001, in contrast to a 92 percent increase for foundations nationally in that same period.

AEFs’ aggregate charitable contributions still pale in comparison with both the $62.80 billion committed to the arts in total by foundations nationally and the $1.20 billion appropriated to the arts by the public sector. That said, according to the study, “such measures belie the field’s potential influence—as the saying goes, it punches above its weight. These distinctively endowed charities are steadily increasing in number and the focus of their activities holds particular relevance to the visual arts.”

“Particular Relevance to the Visual Arts”

Vincent elaborated on AEF’s “particular relevance” in our previous chat.

“Many institutional arts funders operate somewhat at a remove from the field and/or deal with it as one of several areas of focus,” Vincent said. “In contrast, AEFs remain strongly connected to the visual arts community by virtue of the orientation of their charitable purposes, typically reflecting the concerns of the founding artist; the types of individuals on their boards of directors; and their own art exhibition and lending activities.

“As such, you’ll find AEFs involved in emergency grant initiatives responding to natural disasters (Joan Mitchell, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, etc.). You’ll also find AEFs willing to place financial need and emergency assistance as criteria for support to individual artists (Pollock-Krasner, Adolph Gottlieb, etc.), whereas few institutional funders committed to strategic approaches to issues deploy ‘charity.’”

I’d also add that AEFs have been at the forefront in framing the arts as a means to drive social change. For example, back in 2016, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation announced its Artist as Activist program would focus solely on projects that “address the intersections between race, class and mass incarceration.”

So what does the future hold for AEFs?

The fate of AEFs remains closely tied to the fortunes of the global art market and the U.S. stock market. And “as 2018 closes, the study reads, “financial and political storm clouds are gathering. One has to wonder if they herald the emergence of an inevitable downturn in the economic cycle and thus the art market.”

A global economic downturn notwithstanding, “there is little doubt,” the study proclaims, “that the good work artist-endowed foundations do in art stewardship and cultural philanthropy is more important than ever against a social backdrop of growing isolationism, anti-immigrant populism, and intolerance.” In addition, AEFs “steward a growing cultural heritage of modern and contemporary art, and they actively engage the visual arts field through giving and by direct programs, in ways that set them apart from most other foundations.”

Bottom line? “Although representing only a small portion of all private foundations in the US, by virtue of their strong focus in the arts and direct charitable activities involving their art assets, artist-endowed foundations are an increasingly influential force shaping cultural philanthropy and stewarding the country’s artistic heritage.”

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