The Joan Mitchell Foundation Wants to Make New Orleans a Leading Arts City

The Times-Picayune recently looked at how the Joan Mitchell Foundation is investing $20 million in the arts in New Orleans, providing an illuminating "how-to" guide for transforming a beleaguered city's arts scene.

Don't get us wrong; we're not arguing that the Joan Mitchell Foundation's approach can be applied in its entirety to other cities. New Orleans, as we all know, is one of the country's most unique cities. That said, certain elements of its transformation, led by the foundation, are fascinating. If you're looking for a case study on how to revitalize a city's arts scene from the ground up (and give New York a run for its money in the process) you'll find these three things:

A focused funder. Painter Joan Mitchell set up the foundation before her death in 1992. The seed money, which came from the loan and sale of Mitchell's paintings, drawings, and prints, was expected to generate a perfectly respectable $500,000 a year in interest. Yet over time, Mitchell's reputation grew; for example, one of her paintings sold for $12 million in auction in 2014. So thanks to the beauty of the art market and compounded interest, the foundation had $600 million in assets at the end of 2012, and probabably even more today. That's serious money in the arts world, and can go along way in a small city like New Orleans, assuming that the foundation is super focused, which it is. 

A unique kind of community spirit. All arts organizations, of course, build ties with their respective communities. However, the Joan Mitchell Foundation's relationship with New Orleans, rooted in the trauma that was Hurricane Katrina, is different. Call it "philanthropy-meets-disaster assistance." The foundation was on the ground in the aftermath of the hurricane, helped artists in need, immersed itself in the community, and never left.

A commitment to artist comfort and long-term sustainability. Again, all foundations, by definition, have a strong commitment to individual artists, but the Joan Mitchell Foundation is particularly refreshing. For example, while most artists happily accept money, the foundation provides something even more valuable: free housing. It currently owns a plantation house and five small dwellings that are used as apartments for artists-in-residency. (Of course, the $600 monthly paycheck doesn't hurt either.) Bottom line: The foundation means business. It spends approximately $20,000 per artist during their residencies.

Taken in total, the aforementioned article notes that the reemergence of the city's arts scene, thanks in no small part to the Joan Mitchell Foundation, may "shift the national arts landscape" from New York City to New Orleans, a prediction that's all the more interesting when you realize that the foundation is based in New York. It's Southern intrigue at its finest.

(On a related note, IP looked at how New Orleans is expanding school choice with help from private philanthropists. Get the full story here.)