Inside the Joan Mitchell Foundation: How a Visual Arts Funder Is Evolving

photo: Kathie Nichols/shutterstock

photo: Kathie Nichols/shutterstock

The artist Joan Mitchell passed away in 1992. Recently, her Blueberry set an auction record for $16.625 million at Christie’s New York, while her work at Art Basel collectively sold for approximately $35.5 million. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern art announced plans for a massive Mitchell retrospective in 2020.

Add it all up, and Mitchell, according to Artnet, is “the beneficiary of an overdue art historical reckoning.

None of this happened by accident. The 25-year-old Joan Mitchell Foundation has worked tirelessly to promote her legacy while providing critical support for working artists, particularly women and artists of color.

I recently had an opportunity to connect with the foundation’s CEO, Christa Blatchford, about the foundation’s evolution, the growth of artist-endowed foundations, and some of the larger trends permeating the arts philanthropy landscape.

The Unrestricted Support Disconnect

As often noted here on Inside Philanthropy, individual support for working artists is not as common as one would expect. I asked Blatchford to expound on this problem and how it dovetails with the foundation’s mission.

“When speaking of this,” she said, “I always revisit the seminal report published by the Urban Institute in 2003, Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structures for U.S. Artists. This study looked specifically at the needs of individual artists and what support meant to them.

“The report has a key finding that I return to again and again: In the national survey, 96 percent of Americans said they value art in their communities and lives, but only 27 percent said they value artists. It is that disconnect between the appreciation for the arts and understanding the role artists play that we are committed to bridging.

“From our conversations with artists supported by our programs, we hear time and again that unrestricted support, which allows artists to use funds at their discretion to advance their work, continues to be scarce, and that financial struggle is a key impediment to the development of artists’ careers. In addition to the financial support of grants, we see our work with the Joan Mitchell Center, an artist-in-residency program, as another example of supporting process and the artist.”

On the Growth of Artist-Endowed Foundations

We next turned our attention to the rise of artist-endowed foundations (AEFs).

These foundations, the thinking goes, are more attuned to the needs of visual artists than, say, traditional institutional funders, which is good news for working artists moving forward. But such foundations can also be difficult to set up and run, given a litany of legal and operational challenges. As the head of a growing AEF, I asked Blatchford to comment on these issues.

“Each AEF is unique—as is each artist—in the combination of what that artist’s assets are and how they define their charitable purposes and mission… Aside from the general complexities of operating an AEF, I think there are questions emerging around the particular life cycles of AEFs. A foundation may start small, then grow over time and need different management approaches. We at the Joan Mitchell Foundation have been in the process of examining the range of activities the foundation has developed over the past 25 years to ensure that each program is sustainable and mission-aligned, with an eye to maintaining the foundation in perpetuity.

“However, other foundations, for example the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, have made strategic decisions to sunset at a point when they feel the goals have been met.”

Blatchford called attention to succession planning, a particularly vexing issue that finds committed family members running up against arcane and complicated tax considerations. “It is imperative,” she said, “for each foundation to build institutional knowledge and systems that can live into the future and ensure smooth leadership transitions.”

Four Main Avenues of Support

We then drilled down into the specific challenges facing artists in the field and how the foundation addresses them.

Blatchford was quick to point out the “the range of challenges that visual artists face at different points in their careers, from student debt, to the death of mid-sized galleries impacting mid-career artists, to the complexities of estate planning and collection stewardship for important artists who may not have significant art market recognition.”

Blatchford said that many of “these challenges stem from a lack of support structures for artists, the end result being the financial instability that is a reality for most artists.”

To celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, the Joan Mitchell Foundation has been working on an exhibition and book titled Widening Circles, featuring portraits and impact stories from 25 artists who have received grants or other support from the foundation over the years. Blatchford said, “It has been an enlightening experience to read those artists’ stories, which illustrate the diverse ways in which artists used the funds or resources they received. The through line is that the grants provided some freedom to think clearly about the needs of their careers.”

Blatchford then elaborated on the foundation’s four main avenues of support.

“We are strongly committed to providing unrestricted funding through our Painters & Sculptors Grants as a way to acknowledge that each artist knows what is best for them and what will best serve the next stage of their practice. We currently award 25 of these grants annually in the amount of $25,000.”

The foundation also offers emergency grants for “artists whose studios or equipment are damaged by natural disasters. This program developed in direct response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. While initially focused on New Orleans artists, we now offer emergency grants of up to $6,000 to artists nationwide.”

Next up, the Joan Mitchell Center. “Along with direct financial support, artists need time and space to think, experiment, and make their work,” Blatchford said. “Understanding that it can be a challenge to carve out that time and space in the artists’ home environment, the foundation opened the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans in 2015 as an outpost to offer residencies to our grant recipients and local artists.

“The decision to locate the residency program in New Orleans was, in part, a continuation of the direct financial support the foundation provided to the city’s creative community after Katrina.”

Lastly, Blatchford discussed the foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) program.

The initiative “recognizes that artists of all ages may need support to organize their studios and take charge of their creative legacies. CALL provides a comprehensive suite of resources to help artists create usable documentation of their artworks and careers, manage their inventory of artworks, and start the legacy and estate planning process.

“This can be a daunting process, and our workbooks and guides aim to provide a roadmap for artists to understand the options and start defining what their legacy will look like, in their own terms.”

Art for Social Change

One of the big trends we’re seeing in arts philanthropy finds funders pivoting toward addressing pressing social challenges like immigrant rights or criminal justice reform. I asked Blatchford if our assessment lines up with what she's seeing in the field.

“There are funders who have always been committed to finding ways that funding creativity can intersect with larger social issues," she said. “I think more foundations are becoming aware of the potential for impact on social issues when working with artists.

“Our mandate, as outlined in Mitchell’s will, is to ‘aid and assist’ artists directly, and we hear again and again from artists the value of unrestricted support. For that reason, our programs are focused on supporting the artist and their process rather than specific projects or outcomes, and we do not plan to institute issue-specific programs.

“However, it is worth noting that we have been committed since our first grants in 1993 to ensuring the pool of artists is racially and culturally diverse, and we recognize that the impact of our grantees can be a powerful force in the world.

“So even though we don’t have programs dedicated to activist-artists, we have supported many artists who would fall into that category, including Paul Rucker, Postcommodity, Tattfoo Tan, Heather Hart and Jina Valentine (who collaborate on the Black Lunch Table), and Miguel Luciano, among others.”

Boosting Equity in the Visual Arts World and What’s Next

The foundation has also been integral in providing critical support for historically underrepresented female artists.

“We have been talking a lot internally about what it means in this moment to be an artist-endowed foundation that stewards the legacy of a female artist,” Blatchford said. “Over the past year, we have seen increased recognition of Mitchell’s work and accomplishments, a trend that aligns with a larger reassessment of male-dominated art historical narratives to look more closely at women artists, artists of color, and LGBTQ artists.

“It is a reminder that curators and audiences of the future may not evaluate artists’ work using the same standards we have come to expect today.

“For us, this shift directly relates to the goals of our CALL initiative, in that we believe every artist, no matter their perceived success in their lifetime, should have the tools and resources to properly organize and document their life’s work and plan for their legacy… We are proud that of the 27 artists who participated in the many years of fieldwork that informed the development of our CALL resources, 24 of them are women or people of color.”

As part of its 25th anniversary, the foundation announced it would explore how it can “amplify its work and provide the most effective resources, working through a visioning and planning process for the future.” Blatchford said the foundation is starting a strategic planning process in the spring that will include conversations with artists, scholars and other artist-endowed foundations.

“We want to hear their thinking on what the foundation’s specific impact is and can be on Mitchell’s legacy and artists nationally.”