Inside the Joan Mitchell Foundation: How a Visual Arts Funder Is Evolving

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Inside the Joan Mitchell Foundation: How a Visual Arts Funder Is Evolving

The artist Joan Mitchell passed away in 1992. Recently, her Blueberry set an auction record for $16.625 million at Christie’s New York, while her work at Art Basel collectively sold for approximately $35.5 million. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern art announced plans for a massive Mitchell retrospective in 2020.

Add it all up, and Mitchell, according to Artnet, is “the beneficiary of an overdue art historical reckoning.

None of this happened by accident. The 25-year-old Joan Mitchell Foundation has worked tirelessly to promote her legacy while providing critical support for working artists, particularly women and artists of color.

I recently had an opportunity to connect with the foundation’s CEO, Christa Blatchford, about the foundation’s evolution, the growth of artist-endowed foundations, and some of the larger trends permeating the arts philanthropy landscape.

The Unrestricted Support Disconnect

As often noted here on Inside Philanthropy, individual support for working artists is not as common as one would expect. I asked Blatchford to expound on this problem and how it dovetails with the foundation’s mission.

“When speaking of this,” she said, “I always revisit the seminal report published by the Urban Institute in 2003, Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structures for U.S. Artists. This study looked specifically at the needs of individual artists and what support meant to them.

“The report has a key finding that I return to again and again: In the national survey, 96 percent of Americans said they value art in their communities and lives, but only 27 percent said they value artists. It is that disconnect between the appreciation for the arts and understanding the role artists play that we are committed to bridging.

“From our conversations with artists supported by our programs, we hear time and again that unrestricted support, which allows artists to use funds at their discretion to advance their work, continues to be scarce, and that financial struggle is a key impediment to the development of artists’ careers. In addition to the financial support of grants, we see our work with the Joan Mitchell Center, an artist-in-residency program, as another example of supporting process and the artist.”

On the Growth of Artist-Endowed Foundations

We next turned our attention to the rise of artist-endowed foundations (AEFs).

These foundations, the thinking goes, are more attuned to the needs of visual artists than, say, traditional institutional funders, which is good news for working artists moving forward. But such foundations can also be difficult to set up and run, given a litany of legal and operational challenges. As the head of a growing AEF, I asked Blatchford to comment on these issues.

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