Art in Embassies for Perpetuity: Behind the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation's Recent Give

When American painter, sculptor and printmaker Ellsworth Kelly passed away in December of 2015, New York Times art critic Scott Rothkoph penned an effusive appraisal of his work. Here's the money quote:

Mr. Kelly was one of the true pioneers in the development of Abstract art, a relatively short history nearly spanned by the arc of his own long life. Most notably, he challenged the subjective nature of composition and forever changed our understanding of how artworks are not just windows to other worlds but sit squarely in the ones that they (and we) inhabit.

Rothkoph also ruminated on Kelly the man. He was charming, gregarious, and generous. Rothkoph explored the latter attribute through Kelly's relationship with his students, "unspooling stories about his past like a Scheherazade for the art historian set." Yet a missing component surrounding Kelly's generosity is the work of his foundation, established in 1991, which donated $250,000 to the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) less than two weeks after his death.

FAPE was established in 1986 as a public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of State. Since its inception, the FAPE Collection has grown phenomenally and includes over 2,300 pieces by over 200 different American artists. The works have been placed in 140 countries around the globe and each embassy owns the work permanently. It's cultural diplomacy in its purest form.

The Ellsworth Kelly Foundation's gift, which marks the first gift received in honor of FAPE’s 30th Anniversary this year, will establish a new endowment for the Ellsworth Kelly Fund for Preservation which will pay for the maintenance and care of FAPE's collection. By ensuring that these pieces will be cared for in perpetuity at embassies—rather than museums—the gift lends credence to the idea that foundations are increasingly keen on supporting arts preservation and presentation at non-traditional venues.

What's more, the gift ensures that American taxpayers won't have to foot the ongoing maintenance bill. (Somewhere Ted Cruz is cackling.)

The gift also falls in line with the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation's commitment to permanence and preservation. For example, less than three years ago—on Kelly's 90th birthday no, less!—it awarded $300,000 to the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to build permanent endowments of the Arts and Humanities Funds for the six public school districts in Columbia County, New York. Taken in total, the foundation awarded $1.45 million to the Arts and Humanities Funds at Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.

In June of 2015, the foundation awarded a $100,000 grant to Skidmore College’s interdisciplinary Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in Saratoga Springs, New York (Kelly lived in nearby Spencertown). The grant supported the conservation and care of the gallery's 7,000-plus-work collection and established the museum’s first endowment for conservation.

When you add it all up, the foundation's gifts reflect another attribute of Kelly's, articulated by Times critic Scott Rothkoph—he was "far more interested in the present than in the past."