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Going Into the Business of Artist Estates

  • Joan Mitchell Foundation Offices New York
December 15, 2019
A philosophy graduate interested in critical theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

In the 21st century, an artist estate has developed into a recognizable, important entity within the art world. Whether privately managed or institutionalized as artist-endowed foundations, artist estates are dedicated to ensuring the artist’s legacy is preserved after their death, developing a clear agenda in their interactions with museums, academia, and the art market.

The management of an artist estate is successful if the work is kept alive and relevant, if later generations of artists remain inspired by the work, and if curators, academics and collectors continue to find new and invigorating ways to approach the oeuvre.

A growing number of artist-endowed foundations are also becoming a powerful force in the world of cultural philanthropy, discovering the best and most efficient ways to provide much-needed support at a time when traditional funding sources are shrinking.

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•#WarholGrantee• The Warhol Foundation has provided program support over two years to The Luminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Shown here is Kahlil Robert Irving’s outdoor installation as a part of The Luminary’s “Counterpublic” 2019 Triennial curated by James McAnally/ @jamesxmcanally and Katherine Simone Reynolds/ @theunsuspended. Since its inception The Luminary has been a home for exceptional art that engages the pressing issues of the present. Through an active roster of exhibitions, residencies, performances, publications and gatherings, it acts as a point of convergence for diverse publics. The Luminary cultivates thoughtful platforms for exchange, supports forward-moving art and ideas, and attempts to model a more equitable and interconnected art world as an institution of our time. . Image: Kahlil Robert Irving. MOBILE STRUCTURE; RELIEF & Memorial: (Monument Prototype for a Mass), 2019. Sculptural Installation. Photograph by @shabez.j for @fromthecenter . . . #WarholFoundation #Warhol #AndyWarhol #Philanthropy @theluminaryarts #KahlilRobertIrving #art #artist #installation @kahlilrobertirving @counterpublic #counterpublic2019

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What is an Artist Estate?

An artist estate can include anything that once belonged to the artist, but art pieces are the most important part of it. Their main purpose is to ensure that the artist remains relevant in the days to come. To achieve this goal, estates often organize exhibitions and retrospectives of artists’ works presented to the audiences. They are actively strengthening their relationships with museums nationally and internationally, ensuring that the foundation is known as a resource through its collection, archives, and knowledge.

Christa Blatchford from the Joan Mitchell Foundation highlighted that “to nurture an artist’s reputation one has to be open, to support new readings of an artist and her work.”

Alongside organizing exhibitions, artists’ estates are also involved in systematizing an artist’s papers and other archival materials that speak about their life and creative process as well as in the making of catalogue raisonnés, comprehensive listings of all known artists’ works with detailed descriptions, images, provenance and scholarly comments. They provide access to their collections and archives, as well as actively expand their support of scholarly research.

Foundations also often assume the responsibility of authenticating an artist’s work, of overseeing copyrights, image reproduction, licensing and other legal issues or are interested in researching and documenting the work of the artist-founders’ contemporaries as well as their own work.

   Editors’ Tip: The Artist Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs by Loretta Würtenberger and Karl Trott

Andy Warhol memorably said that “death can really make you look like a star,” but death in itself is not a guarantee of the relevance of an artist. What is of crucial importance is the proper management structure for the posthumous preservation and development of an artist’s estate. The Artist Estate, a handbook written by Loretta Würtenberger, presents the possible legal frameworks and appropriate financing models available in this situation, as well as the proper handling of interest from the market, museums and academia. Würtenberger’s business, Fine Art Partners, has advised artists and artists’ estates for many years. Based on numerous international examples, the author explains the different alternatives for maintaining an artist’s estate and makes recommendations on how best to handle work, archives and ephemera following the death of an artist.

Managing the Artist Estate

The planning, set-up and management of an artist estate is an endeavor that entails considerable responsibility. Major foundations are professionally-led entities with specific strategies, solid financial planning, permanent members of staff, extensive advisory boards – and are managed accordingly. They act with the understanding that they are entitled to have a say alongside the more traditional art world players. However, professionalization does not happen automatically, or error-free.

In her book The Artist’s EstateLoretta Würtenburger, co-founder of Institute for Artists’ Estates, explains the different alternatives for maintaining an artist’s estate and makes recommendations on how best to handle work, archives and ephemera following the death of an artist. Explaining that artists’ estates have a three-phase life cycle – strategic and safeguarding, operational, expansion or final, the author notes that “despite differences among artists’ estates, the living artist planning for the future or the estate itself must ask the same questions in order to develop a successful strategy.”

Würtenburger further explains that “an artist’s estate is successful when it is able to keep the work alive” which requires that an estate “facilitates discourse, contextualizes the work, initiates exhibitions, and encourages contemporary artists to engage with it.” Regarding the question of the longevity of the estate, she considers two options: sunset model, which anticipates termination of the estate at a point when all its goals have been achieved and/or frustrated, and eternity models, which usually operates where a separate legal entity has been created and endowed/resourced to operate indefinitely.

During a recent four-day workshop in Los Angeles, organized by the Berlin-based Institute for Artists’ Estates, the presentations offered many practical suggestions on the subjects. Among them are that living artists should get written consignment agreements for all their artworks, old and new, that artist estates need to be wary in allowing their lawyers to talk them into creating a foundation, that family heirs need to try to divvy up work according to interests and that foundations should consider a sunset clause.

Artists’ Estates. Managing Legacy in the 21st Century | Talking Galleries 2018

Existing Artist Estates

Over the last several decades, the number of artists whose careers thrived during their lifetimes has grown exponentially, which allowed them more time, resources, and flexibility to plan ahead. The latest study by the Aspen Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, The Artist as Philanthropist: Strengthening the Next Generation of Artist-Endowed Foundations, identified 300 artist-endowed foundations holding a total of $2.5 billion in assets, of which more than $1 billion was in art assets. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of these foundations nearly doubled, with charitable-purpose payments totaling $954 million. Most of the existing foundations have to do with the generations of artists active in the 1950s or 1960s. The majority of these foundations are dedicated to deceased artists, with the most recent ones set up for Louise Bourgeois and Cy Twombly. Living artists who have set up foundations and are already making substantial gifts include painters Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, LeRoy Neiman, and Helen Frankenthaler.

The Joan Mitchell Foundation is both a model for how resources can be offered to artists and an advocate for the value of artists. In addition to working on expanding awareness of the artist’s pioneering work, their charitable purposes also include Joan Mitchell’s wish that the foundation directly supports visual artists through grants, residencies, and related initiatives. More recently, the Foundation inaugurated a new artist residency program based in New Orleans.

The generosity of Keith Haring extended even after his death through the work of the Keith Haring Foundation, set up in 1989 to protect his legacy but also to provide imagery and funding to AIDS and children’s charities worldwide. Today, the Foundation works to sustain, expand, and protect his legacy, his art, and his ideals and supports not-for-profit organizations that assist children, as well as organizations involved in education, prevention, and care related to AIDS.

The largest artist-endowed Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation was created according to the artist’s will which dictated that his entire estate should be dedicated to the “advancement of the visual arts.” Today, the Foundation supports the creation, presentation and documentation of contemporary visual art, particularly work that is experimental, under-recognized, or challenging in nature. Joel Wachs, the president of the foundation, explained that funding provided by artists is the “purest and best way to support the arts.”

The Rauschenberg Foundation also exists to both further the artist’s legacy and be philanthropic. When deciding on their grants, they consider the values which were emblematic of the artist. They support artists, initiatives, and institutions that embody the same innovative, inclusive, and multidisciplinary approach that Rauschenberg exemplified in both his art and philanthropic endeavors.

Loretta Würtenburger highlights it is crucial that artist estates “act as a state-of-the-art ‘guardian of soul’ for the respective artist, reminding the world of the artist’s aim.” As she explains, this aim was beautifully expressed by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres:

Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art.

   Editors’ Tip: Artists’ Estates: Reputations in Trust by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau

Artists’ Estates offers a fascinating journey into the complex and competitive art world through the distinctive lens of those who deal with the paintings, prints, and sculpture that artists leave behind after their deaths. Bringing together interviews conducted by Magda Salvesen, the widow of the second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter Jon Schueler, this unique book provides a window into the goals and desires, the conflicts and frustrations, and the emotional and financial strains that confront widows, companions, sons, and daughters as the heirs to artists’ estates. The judiciously arranged and edited interviews also address the benefits and liabilities of foundations and trusts through the insights of lawyers, gallery dealers, and foundation directors.

Featured image: Joan Mitchell Foundation Offices New York. Courtesy Verona Carpenter Architects, Polise Consulting Engineers.