Right Time, Right Place: Behind a Dual Endowment Gift for the Arts

Ohio state university

Ohio state university

In a recent post looking at a new grant offering from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (CFA), I passed along the foundation's cool creation story, and it goes a little something like this.

Jasper Johns, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and other painters came together to help Merce Cunningham and his dance company finance a proposed season on Broadway by arranging for a sale of their artworks. There was money left over, so they started a foundation. A year later, dozens of acclaimed artists, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, contributed to the foundation's historic first benefit exhibition. 

Since then, the philanthropic legacies of these artists has grown enormously. In 1990, Robert Rauschenberg created his own foundation; less than a decade after his death, it's been at the forefront of the "artist as activist" movement. The Merce Cunningham Trust has been going strong since 2009. And the Andy Warhol Foundation is doing all sorts of great things, including keeping arts writers in business.

As those preceding hyperlinks suggest, we've covered each of these famous artists' foundations—with one glaring omission. Fortunately, news out of Cleveland will right this wrong.

Not long ago, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation of New York announced it has established two $3 million endowments at its namesake's alma mater, Ohio State University, to support the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Endowed Chair of Art History and the Roy Lichtenstein Endowed Chair of Studio Art.

The endowments recognize the "formative influence" OSU played in the career of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), one of America's most celebrated 20th century artists. Lichtenstein received a bachelor of fine arts at OSU in 1946 and his master of fine arts in 1949. He taught studio courses in the School of Fine and Applied Arts between 1946 and 1951 and lived in Cleveland from 1951 to 1957.

Make no mistake: This gift is yet another example of a foundation supporting the arts and humanities in higher ed while honoring the legacy of its namesake. But there are some other dynamics at play, again corroborating that tried-and-true platitude that "no gift exists in a vacuum."

In this case, I was intrigued by the timing of the gift. Why now? The answer, courtesy of Roy's widow Dorothy, has to do with place-based development:

For a number of years, Roy's family and the foundation have been looking for the most promising way to enhance the Ohio State program. Happily, as the Ohio State Arts District begins to take shape and the Columbus art and museum scene expands, we think these professorships can build on this momentum. For us, it is 'Right Time - Right Place.'

You didn't know that Columbus has a thriving art scene? Well, join the club; many people don't. But like a lot of smaller cities these days, Columbus is attracting more creative people as traditional top destinations like New York become pricey and lose their edge. 

Once again, we see arts funders fanning the new artistic energy emerging in small cities, often in partnership with local universities.

Viewed through this lens, the Lichtenstein gift represents an astute piece of place-based grantmaking that echoes the Heinz Foundation's work 133 miles to the southeast in Pittsburgh. For a more thorough take on these efforts, click here.