What the Mike Kelley Foundation is Suddenly Doing for Small Arts Organizations in L.A.

Mike Kelly was an eccentric artist who lived and worked in Los Angeles, best known for his satirical sculpture, installations, and performance art. A few years before his death (an apparent suicide in 2012), Kelly shifted his attention to supporting small arts organizations in the city and established a grantmaking foundation in 2007.

Back then, it was all an informal affair. He would simply give money to arts organizations that he found compelling with no real application process or review. Over the years, a group of Kelly’s friends and supporters joined with curators and art historians to serve as co-directors of the foundation, still maintaining a fairly unstructured approach to philanthropy.

Well, times have changed and the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts is taking a turn to formalize itself and become a bigger player on the local arts funding scene. The foundation recently made headlines by announcing a new commitment of $250,000, which will go to compelling visual artists and artist collectives across all mediums. This is the foundation’s first official and publicized funding initiative, so for local arts groups, it’s kind of a big deal.

"Mike helped establish Los Angeles as a really vibrant arts scene, and this is a part of that," Mary Clare Stevens, the foundation's executive director, told the LA Times. "He was very explicit in the paperwork that he wanted to fund arts organizations, especially smaller ones and ones that he believed were doing good work — work that other folks weren't paying attention to."

Now that the Kelley Foundation is putting a few more rules and regulations into place, there is more opportunity for local nonprofits to get involved with this highly specialized funder. The foundation says that new grants will be between $5,000 and $50,000, and it’s really looking for any and all types of arts organizations to apply.

Interested nonprofits can submit a letter of inquiry through August 5, and the foundation is looking to fund projects that artists will execute between April 2016 and December 2017. And at least for now, the funding strategy is completely local and totally risky.

“Mindful of his enormous influence on a generation of L.A. artists, we will follow suit by focusing first on the L.A. arts community,” explained John C. Welchan, who leads the board of directors. “In the spirit of Mike’s passion and candor, we want to support work that may be difficult to fund due to its content or complexity. Whereas some funders are risk-averse, we hope to be risk-friendly.”

Back in January 2015, we learned that the foundation would be represented exclusively by Hauser & Wirth, an international gallery with exhibition spaces in New York, London, Zurich, and Somerset. Plans are in the works to open up a brand new permanent space in Los Angeles in 2016. It seems that this arrangement is driving foundation giving to new places, but we think that’s a good thing for the L.A. arts scene. With a bit more structure and transparency, the Mike Kelley Foundation stands to make a real difference for under-appreciated artists. However, it will be interesting to see if the other cities that Hauser & Wirth is affiliated with will eventually see some Kelley Foundation support in the years ahead, as well.

To learn more about where Mike Kelley Foundation grantmaking may be headed, check out the foundation website’s Grant Guidelines page. Letters of inquiry can be emailed to grants@mikekelleyfoundation.org and general inquiries can be directed to info@mikekelleyfoundation.org