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Artists do their bit to help US museums’ bottom line

Los Angeles institution gained $22.5m last month as endowments grow thanks to sale of artists’ gifts

The endowment of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles grew by more than 20% in a single week in May thanks to an increasingly influential group of patrons: artists. Works by 45 artists, including Mark Grotjahn and Ed Ruscha, sold for a total of $22.5m (est $11.5m-$16.3m) to benefit the museum in the spring contemporary sales at Sotheby’s, New York. The auction illustrates artists’ growing impact not just as creators, but also as philanthropists. Today’s art market has created “an unprecedented population of wealthy artists” who demonstrate “an unprecedented level of direct generosity toward institutions”, says Allan Schwartzman, a founder of Art Agency Partners. 

Artists were quick to donate to the auction because they recognised the “practical” importance of the endowment, says Philippe Vergne, the director of the museum. “People don’t realise how much artists have helped museums over the years.” When Vergne was the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, an artist stepped forward to fund a poetry series when no one else would. Another is helping to fund the redesign of the Los Angeles museum’s website. 

Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham began to form foundations in the 1960s—the first time young US artists had a substantial amount of money. Now, artists give work worth tens of millions of dollars to charity auctions each year. Some, including David Hammons, Mark Bradford, John Baldessari, Douglas Gordon and Robert Ryman, also have their own non-profit organisations. The online auction house Paddle8 hosted 255 benefit auctions in 2014, up from 150 in 2013, according to a spokeswoman. The sales raised $20m for non-profits, a 150% increase on 2013.

Last October, the artist Bosco Sodi opened the Casa Wabi Foundation as a community centre and retreat for artists in Oaxaca, Mexico. Casa Wabi has more than 60 residents a year, and each has one obligation: to organise a project with the local community. Sodi shoulders 25% to 30% of the operating costs, or around $250,000 a year; the rest comes from the government and corporate sponsors, including Deutsche Bank. “It is illogical what is happening with the craziness of the art market,” Sodi says. “I think of it as a way to give back something that doesn’t belong to me.” 

Like Sodi, Mark Bradford says that he “didn’t want to wait until the end of my career” to set up a foundation. In December, the Los Angeles-based artist opened Art + Practice, which organises contemporary art exhibitions and education programmes for young people in foster care. “I wanted to do it in the middle of my career so we could grow up together,” Bradford says. 

Many artists are motivated to give during their lifetimes “to protect their fellow artists’ ability to make art”, says the art historian and adviser Kristy Bryce. This reflects “first-hand experience as a creator”, says Christine Vincent, the author of an Aspen Institute study on artists’ foundations. “They respond to issues in their local communities and the arts that are not otherwise well-funded.” 

The Alex Katz Foundation gave away art worth $1.8m in 2013 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) to small museums including the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine. “He has collected the work of artists he admires whom he feels are under-recognised, and often donates the work to regional museums that have limited acquisition budgets,” Vincent says. 

The Ellsworth Kelly Foundation gave $1m in grants in 2013. Around half went to community organisations in Columbia County, New York, where Kelly lives; the other half was for the conservation of art and cultural heritage worldwide. “The idea is to think locally and act globally,” says Jack Shear, the executive director of the foundation. Recent grants include $100,000 for the conservation laboratory at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Of Kelly, Shear says: “He has been fortunate, so it’s good to be able to redistribute the wealth.”