The Grateful Alumnus Strikes Again: Behind a Big Give to Bennington's Visual Arts Program

There are countless "Road to Damascus" moments in which an individual has an epiphany that sets them on a path toward philanthropy. For example, Stephen King's road was painfully literal. While his Steven and Tabitha King Foundation has been around since 1986, he started the Haven Foundation after he was actually hit by a car while walking alongside the road.

King was critically injured, and having experienced the painful effects of such an injury, started the foundation to aid to freelance artist, writers, readers and others that work in publishing who are unable to work.

But more often than not, the road to giving for many individual arts philanthropists is a bit more straightforward and intuitive. One classic demographic is the "grateful alumnus." There are tons of them, and today, I'd like to profile one from the glorious state that bans highway billboards, Vermont.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), whose career spanned six decades, has long been recognized as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century. Following her graduation from Vermont's Bennington College in 1949, she became one of America’s most celebrated abstract painters.

And now comes word that the New York City-based Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, founded in 1984, has given $5 million to her alma mater to "support all aspects of Bennington's visual arts program." The gift, the foundation’s largest single grant to date, will establish the Helen Frankenthaler Fund for the Visual Arts. In a ceremony on April 12, 2015, the college will name the visual arts wing of its 120,000-square-foot arts facility the Helen Frankenthaler Visual Arts Center, in tribute to a remarkable Bennington alumni.

While the foundation has historically made occasional grants on a discretionary basis, it does not accept unsolicited requests and is currently establishing guidelines for a formal grants program.

What compelled the foundation to award this historic grant? Clifford Ross, chairman of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation board of trustees and a nephew of the artist, summed it up: "Helen‘s education at Bennington was critical to shaping her sensibility as a young artist, nurturing a spirit of risk-taking, experimentation, and inquiry that formed the basis of her creative process."

And then there's Frankenthaler herself, who noted in 1997, "All of my Bennington memories melt into one joyful stream of laughter, invention, serious concerned pursuits, intense friendships, and the opening of my already 'analytic mind.'"

Can you think of a better, one-sentence encapsulation of the benefit a liberal arts education than that?

We can't help pointing out that this is just the latest in a string of gifts to support the liberal arts ideal of a broad education—in an era when STEM funding has lately been triumphant. The money here is nothing compared to the massive $150 million gift that Stephen Schwarzman just made to Yale University for a new performing arts center, but it's substantial for a place like Bennington, which is not exactly rolling in money from alumni who sold their souls to Wall Street.

On the other hand, an interesting last point to mention about this gift is that it underscores how some leaders in the arts have amassed substantial fortunes. We've written often about the Andy Warhol Foundation, and its vast resources. But the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation is pretty substantial in its own right, last reporting $100 million in assets. The Joan Mitchell Foundation, also endowed with the wealth of a celebrated abstract painter, last reported assets of $274 million. Other arts fortunes are waiting in the wings, and that bodes well for struggling artists. 

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