Joel Wachs, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

TITLE: President

FUNDING AREAS: Contemporary visual art, arts writing

CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)

PROFILE: Joel Wachs is a Harvard graduate, originally from Los Angeles. He practiced corporate tax law for some years in LA, and in 1971 he ran for City Council and eventually won in a run-off election against incumbent James Potter. Wachs went on to spend the next 30 years in service in the city council, where he was was responsible for the passage of a landmark anti-AIDS discrimination law in 1985, one of the first of its kind in the nation.  

This may seem like an incongruent beginning for someone who would eventually become president of an organization like the The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, but Wachs was always a vigorous supporter of the arts and a keen collector of modern art himself (and remains one, frankly acknowledging that he spends half of his salary on purchasing art). He's also been an arts advocate; through his leadership, the Los Angeles City Council passed legislation in 1988 establishing the seminal Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts. 

Wachs went on to many other successes in politics (he assumed the presidency of the Los Angeles City Council in 1981) and a few losses. He eventually ran for mayor of LA three different times, but lost each election. In 2001, after his last loss, he resigned from his city council position to assume the presidency of The Warhol.

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has many avenues of support for contemporary art, including the promotion of writing about such art. The foundation divvies up its grantmaking into three major categories:

  • Warhol Initiative – Since the inception of this program, participating institutions like 911 Media Arts Center, Momenta Art and Artists Space have received grants totaling over $8 million.
  • Arts Writing Initiatives – For those who make their observations on paper regarding their thoughts on contemporary visual art. Art writers can apply for grants that range from $7,000 to $30,000 (bloggers and new media writers included).
  • Regional Regranting – These grants are awarded to support individual artist communities around the country.

The Warhol has also thrown its financial support behind Creative Capital, another relatively large arts grantmaking organization awarding grants to individual artist communities. Not including the $17 million The Warhol has granted Creative Capital over time, the foundation awards an average of around $13 million annually through its other grantmaking programs.

As president, Wachs has been a steadfast supporter of the mission of the foundation. In a recent interview he explained their overall aim, stating:

"We accomplish our mission by supporting artists and the nonprofit arts organizations that support and serve artists, including nonprofit arts publications. The grants, which are given primarily to organizations in the United States, are used for the creation, presentation, and documentation of art, with a particular emphasis on art that's experimental, challenging in nature, and often under-recognized. We also vigorously defend freedom of artistic expression whenever it's under threat, whether by joining in lawsuits or by supporting people who have been censored or have had their artistic expression compromised. And from time to time we step in when there's a weather-related emergency by supporting artists and arts organizations that are affected by such a disaster."

Interestingly Wachs only met Warhol once in his lifetime, but he has gone on to do some very bold things as head of the organization that bears the artist's name, including dissolving the foundation’s authentication committee and selling off its entire art collection in order to fund an additional $5 million to $7 million in grants each year. Wachs was also instrumental in the foundation's long-term commitment to Creative Capital in 2009, which has proven to be a fruitful relationship.

Though his route to head a contemporary art foundation was an unusual one, Wachs has always had an affinity for Warhol the artist and what he exemplified in Wachs' mind. "[Warhol] believed that being different was not something to be afraid of,” said Wachs in an interview. “He was really the one person in the visual arts field who had a remarkable impact on our culture and who affected my life.”

As a gay man who came out publicly during his last unsuccessful mayoral campaign, Wachs knows what it's like to swim against prevailing tides. Though he began in politics, he undoubtedly understands the plight of the artist, and self-admittedly and unabashedly loves giving the foundation's money out to those who he feels deserve it.

In a L.A. Times interview, Wachs reflected:

"When I came here, we were giving away about $3.5 million in grants, and now we're giving away between $13 [million] and $14 million a year. We've been able to have a real impact on nonprofit arts organizations — not just in major cities. In many cases we're the primary supporter of an arts foundation in a bright red state. Even during the recession, when the economy was bad, you would still find in every community — in Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alabama, Mississippi — small arts organizations popping up like flowers coming up out of the cracks of sidewalks."

JOEL WACHS, Warhol Foundation President, speaks at Charlotte Street Foundation luncheon from Charlotte Street Foundation on Vimeo.