Proactive Support Pays Off: The American Art Renewal Fund

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

By Ellen Holtzman, Program Director for American Art, 
Henry Luce Foundation

For 30 years, the Henry Luce Foundation’s American Art Program has supported projects and programs advancing the study of American art through exhibitions, catalogues, doctoral dissertations, archival projects, collection reinstallations, digitization, and so forth. The Luce Foundation has distributed $140 million to museums across the U.S. and internationally, and, for most of the program’s existence, there has never been a dearth of proposals to the board for support.

Beginning in late 2008, however, something was different—we weren’t seeing the typical list of potential projects “penciled in” for the coming year. By 2009, it became apparent that the economic downturn was affecting museums to the extent that they were totally focused on basic operations and could not even consider the sort of activities the program would usually support.

The Foundation recognized the need for an initiative that would respond more directly to the crisis these museums were facing. Building on the Luce Foundation’s significant investment in American art, the Foundation’s board of directors approved the short-term American Art Renewal Fund (AARF). During 2010 and 2011, the AARF supplanted most of the American Art Program’s traditional project grants. Instead, the Foundation’s directors considered requests for operating support restricted to American art activities.

The first round of grant applications we received spoke of roofs that were caving in, American art galleries without essential heating, and small museums unable to afford the specialized personnel they needed to install new exhibitions. Because they lacked sufficient operating funds, some of these museums were essentially paralyzed. The AARF initiative allowed the Luce Foundation to respond to these needs while also fulfilling our program’s mission.

Given the projected availability of $4 million and the need to keep the AARF administratively manageable, the application pool was limited to a pre-selected group of 93 art museums, all prior grantees with successful track records fulfilling Luce-funded projects. After only two application cycles, 72 of the invited museums (80 percent) had submitted proposals, a clear demonstration of the need for the AARF initiative. The requests were overwhelmingly for personnel—curators, registrars, and art preparators with direct responsibility for their respective American art collections. Other needs included critical building maintenance or repair and assistance with cash reserves, bridge loans, or debt reduction.

By early 2011, there was already some indication of renewed stabilization and programmatic revival in the proposals we were receiving, perhaps as a result of the museums’ strategic retrenchment and acclimation to fewer resources. When the AARF initiative concluded, 85 of the 93 invited museums had submitted applications. Of these proposals, the directors approved 57 grants for a total of $5,480,500. Museums that received AARF grants were located across the country, in thirty states and the District of Columbia, with annual budgets ranging from $500,000 to $65 million—the vast majority of recipients running organizations with budgets under $10 million a year.

Many directors, curators, and development officers from the invited museums conveyed their gratitude to the Foundation for offering the AARF, whether or not they received a grant. One museum director told us that while many of her long-term supporters had acknowledged the effects of the financial downturn and sympathized with the museum’s situation, none offered actual assistance. Other officials wrote very moving notes to the Foundation, saying they were “in tears” when they received news of an AARF grant. The following two quotes encapsulate the field’s general sentiment:

“Once again, the Luce Foundation astutely recognizes what is most important to ensure the health and growth of American art programs across the country.” (An American art curator from a large mid-western museum.)

“The insight and effective, practical approach to financial issues confronting museums demonstrated by the Henry Luce Foundation is truly extraordinary. You really know how to help.” (An executive director from a small mid-Atlantic museum.)

While there are no plans to continue the American Art Renewal Fund (and the board has resumed consideration of typical requests for programmatic support), our ongoing communication with the field ensures that we can respond to future needs as they arise.

Although the American Art Renewal Fund was a departure for the Foundation, it reflected the American Art Program’s deep commitment to the field. And what we learned was that the Foundation could respond strategically to the crisis affecting museums while maintaining the objectives of its own longstanding mission.

Ellen Holtzman has been the Program Director for American Art at the Henry Luce Foundation since 1992. Formerly, she was Managing Director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Assistant Director of the Queens Museum of Art, and Assistant Manager of Public Programs at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Her extensive background in art and art history includes a B.A. from George Washington University and M.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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