Adolph and Esther Gottlieb in Provincetown, 1956. ©️Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York, NY
The idea for a foundation to help older artists started in a discussion between Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko in the late 1960s. Mark Rothko died in February, 1970; Gottlieb in March, 1974. Both artists left similar instructions to establish foundations to help individual artists.
When I began working with Esther Gottlieb in October, 1976, a foundation was being established “to provide grants-in-aid to mature, creative painters and sculptors.” No-one, however, knew exactly what that phrase meant or how it might be realized.
We knew of no model for a foundation established by an individual artist that could provide cash grants to individual artists. The only related example was the Mark Rothko Foundation; however, the directors of the Rothko Foundation had been found guilty of several violations of law for mismanaging the foundation in a court decision handed down in December, 1975.
Everyone involved in setting up the Gottlieb Foundation was aware of the Rothko decision; some cautioned against proceeding in light of the Rothko case. The situation was complicated morally and ethically for Esther Gottlieb, as Mark Rothko was a close friend and she had long-standing business and personal relationships with several people involved on both sides of the Rothko case. It is to Esther’s credit that she never wavered in her insistence on establishing a grant program to assist individual artists.
The Gottlieb Foundation had several challenges to meet almost immediately: to devise a grant program that would be open and non-discriminatory, to define a “mature, creative painter and sculptor,” how to manage the collection of art it would inherit, and how to handle gallery representation of Gottlieb’s art. There was also the practical question of how to operate, as the Foundation had very little cash.
To settle these issues, the trustees addressed the larger question of the foundation’s core values. We determined that what made our Foundation unique was that it reflected the life and legacy of an individual artist. We resolved to organize our programs and activities so that the promotion of, and respect for, the concerns of individual artists is our primary consideration.
That decision had immediate implications. To recognize Adolph’s life-long achievements and the body of art he had created, we established a program to use the works of art in our collection to organize exhibitions for, and to lend to, museums and other public venues.
Establishing a grant program meant selling works of art in order to fund grants. To do that effectively we decided to manage the sale of works of art the same way as any investment asset—that is, selected works of art would be offered for sale at the discretion of the Foundation, and not every work of art in the collection was for sale.
Shaping a grant program was also complicated. Defining what “mature” meant was more difficult than we thought. Using a simple age cut-off didn’t make sense as some artists begin their careers later in life, others begin quite early. Ultimately, we let the work itself determine maturity and we define a mature artist as someone who has been creating art at a mature level for a significant number of years. We also had to define financial need, and the simple notion of a line drawn at a certain income level didn’t seem fair. With the advice of board-member and economist Dick Netzer, we devised a formula that considers professional expenses as well as income, and monitors relative local economies, in order to determine eligibility for assistance in a given year.
Finally, there was a debate about whether to offer grants through an open application program or by nomination. With limited staff (1 ½), and more limited funding, did it make sense to open the process to an unknowable number of applicants and how could we screen and review applications in a limited time. How would we fund the program? Our focus on individual artists led us to develop an open application process. We moved quickly to prove the purposes of the Foundation to the authorities that govern non-profits and to the art-world, as well as to prove to ourselves that this idea could work. We borrowed $10,000 and awarded grants to four individual artists to complete our inaugural grant cycle.
Soon after that first cycle, the trustees tried to project how long the Foundation might last and what it might accomplish. Our most optimistic projection was ten years and in that time we hoped to define a model for an artist’s foundation that others might follow. As I write this, beginning my forty-third year with the Gottlieb Foundation, the field of Artist-Endowed Foundations that didn’t exist in 1976 has grown into hundreds of organizations providing various kinds of support and confirmation for the role of individual artists. We look forward to a growing community providing an increasingly broad system of support for the lives and careers of individual artists.