The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation
In the nexus of the art world, foundations are often perceived as mysterious nebulas.
By the time someone noticed it was on fire, Laurelton Hall had been burning for hours. The grand manor house, completed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1905 at Cold Spring Harbor in Long Island had, by that point, become a shell of its former self. The extravagant mansion had been converted from a summer home into an artists’ residency in 1918, when Tiffany established the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, the first organization of its kind in the United States. Once teeming with purpose and life, Laurelton Hall was no longer in use as an artists’ retreat when the fire destroyed it in 1957; indeed the house had long been out of use at all. But within its walls there were forged early memories of a radical experiment, one that survived Louis Comfort Tiffany, his descendants, and the house itself. In 2018, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation celebrated its centennial anniversary, making it the oldest artist-endowed foundation in America, and the first to have been founded by a living artist.
What is an artist-endowed foundation? In the nexus of the art world, foundations are often perceived as mysterious nebulas. Unlike museums, which—at their most basic—share a duty to care for and protect works of art, and make them available to a viewing public, artist-endowed foundations are organizations that serve an array of purposes and uphold diverse missions. Some exist as a repository for an artist’s archive. Others are grant giving, or otherwise philanthropic institutions. A foundation may be incorporated as public (or non-profit) or private, depending on its individual purpose. And because the vast majority of them are relatively small entities, they are frequently misunderstood. The Aspen Institute established the Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative (AEFI) in 2010 precisely to study in-depth the workings, purposes, and influence of artist-endowed foundations, a project that it continues today. AEFI holds conferences and symposia, publishes scholarly papers on the subject, and offers counsel and resources to artist-endowed foundations themselves. But these strategies, while helpful to those already embedded in the foundation world, are less easily known or understood by those outside of it. As curator Mark Rosenthal wrote recently in the pages of this magazine,
The most fundamental ambition of an artist in creating a foundation is to establish a means to posthumously steward his or her creative achievements in a way that will sustain and enhance the relevance of the work, as well as to provide for philanthropy that will address the greater good. The artist-endowed foundation takes up that charge, focusing and framing it to benefit the public by increasing access to the artist’s works and building knowledge about the role in art history.1
If artists’ foundations may be said to have one commonality, it’s that they exist to in some way preserve a legacy. But how one might go about that means different things to different individuals. What did it mean for Louis Comfort Tiffany?
The eldest of four children, Tiffany was born February 18, 1848 to Charles L. Tiffany and his wife Harriet. In 1837, his father had founded Tiffany & Co., the legendary New York jeweler and luxury goods retailer. By the time Louis was born, the business’s reputation was established, its merchandise coveted by celebrities, dignitaries, and members of high society. Louis was a creative, headstrong child who frequently butted heads with his business-minded father. Though he understood their importance, he had little interest in finances, instead relishing both creative pursuits and time spent outdoors. His father hoped Louis would take over the family business; the son instead surprised his family when he announced at age eighteen that he would forego university, and train to become an artist. He began as a painter and though he continued to paint throughout his life, and was renowned in a wide array of decorative arts, Tiffany was and remains best known for his revolutionary work in glass. He incorporated the Tiffany Glass Company in 1885, where he eventually conceived Favrile glass (a name he trademarked in 1894), distinct for its iridescent color that is intrinsic to the material rather than applied, and for which he had received a patent. His glassworks, like his father’s jewelry before, became much coveted, and Tiffany undertook many important commissions, including the redesign of several rooms of the White House in 1882 prior to the installment of President Chester Arthur.
Tiffany bought the property for Laurelton Hall, on the north shore of Long Island, in 1902 with sights set to constructing a summer home. For the next three years, he oversaw every aspect of construction, to which he sought inspiration from both Asian and modernist architecture. As a result, Laurelton Hall’s design was singular. Tiffany also personally designed much of the home’s interior, and furnished it with his private collections—a sanctuary that befit his specific visions of beauty. No less important to Tiffany was the house’s surroundings. Remembering her father to Robert Koch, a biographer of Tiffany, his youngest daughter Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham once wrote, “Immediately on reaching our summer home my father would set out to inspect the garden. He knew every plant and flower and spent much time directing the planting. To watch the flowers grow from bud to bloom was his greatest pleasure.”2 It was sometimes reported that the 60 acres of manicured gardens on Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall property constituted a greater cost than the mansion itself. This love for the natural world manifested in Tiffany’s designs, spectacular as they were in flora and fauna motifs. After more than a decade enjoying his summer refuge, and the creativity it inspired in his work, Tiffany began to think of opening it up to other artists in some fashion. Additionally, at age 70 and though still hearty, it is quite possible he was thinking of his own legacy as well. But in this, as in so many other areas of his life, Tiffany’s thinking was maverick. Rather than an overt concern for carrying on his name, his aim centered on the support of other artists. Coming from great wealth and with an already-distinguished family name, his insouciance is perhaps understandable. But the fact remained that the entity Tiffany envisioned was to be dedicated to the purpose of helping hardworking but unrecognized artists of merit get a leg up in the world. On July 30, 1918, he signed a formal agreement establishing the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, deeding to it Laurelton Hall and its property with the purpose of creating a new kind of place for artists to work.
An artist’s life is rarely simple. One chooses the life because of an insatiable drive—an absolute need to create. But being an artist is not like most other lines of work. Often, one labors with little or no support or backing, physically, mentally, and financially. Hours in the studio can be long and lonely, and money is such that projects often must be set aside due to lack of funds for realization. Most working artists also have day jobs, in order that they might sustain themselves and pay the bills. This was no less true in Tiffany’s time than it is today. Reporting on the Tiffany Foundation’s first year of operations at Laurelton Hall for Arts & Decoration magazine, one writer, John Kimberly Mumford noted,
It is the natural outgrowth of present conditions that the artist who cannot keep a balance at the bank passes from the skyline of the exhibitions to the comfortable mediocrity of shoe salesmanship and the world counts him well lost. Time, which was so inexpensive in Renaissance Florence has been squeezed by the efficiency engineers into the pitiless cost accounting schedule.3
Hours spent in these more proletarian endeavors mean hours not spent in the studio, creating the work. Artists are frequently asked to make objects or donate their time for free; labor that in other, more straightforward pursuits there would never be a question as to whether one ought, or ought not, to be paid. A broad grant-giving program like the one established by the Tiffany Foundation can help alleviate some of these all-pervading monetary concerns, especially for artists who are just surfacing in their careers.
Tiffany was adamant that Laurelton Hall was not to be a school (though early reports often referred to it as such, journalists not having a better name for such a progressive conception) but rather a place for artists to retreat, so that they might take advantage of a slower pace of time, as well as the resplendent natural setting of Laurelton Hall to become inspired, and push and evolve in their work. Visiting residents were “fellows” rather than “students,” and though established artists were invited to come and spend time at Laurelton Hall, no formal instruction existed, and critique was offered only at the residents’ discretion. To accommodate the fellows, a stable on the property was converted to a dormitory and living area with private apartments for the men. When women were accepted as residents a year later, they were invited to stay in the main house. Aside from that concession to the social convention of the times, there was little else segregating the male and female residents either pragmatically or philosophically, and in this way Laurelton Hall soon accrued a genteel, bohemian spirit. That his own chosen medium of glass was one more traditionally associated with “craft” rather than “fine art” was not lost on Tiffany; indeed his commitment to craft was a defining quality of his philosophies. In keeping with his mission, the inaugural session at Laurelton, in the summer of 1920, offered residencies to eight artists, among them several painters and a sculptor but also two silversmiths, and a “designer and craftsman.”
From the beginning, Tiffany was aware that the expense of carrying on at Laurelton Hall would be a pressing, and ongoing, concern. His sister Louise was compelled to present the Foundation with $7000 in funds in 1922, and she reran the gesture the following year with an additional $10000 gift, which Tiffany himself also matched. A terrace had collapsed under weight of snow, and that, combined with a hefty legal retainer to their lawyers had put the Foundation’s finances in peril. Additionally, and in what now seems like eerie prescience, Tiffany was rigorously concerned with the possibility of fire at Laurelton Hall, and minutes from early meetings of the Board of Trustees indicate that much discussion was given over to fire preparation within and around the Laurelton Hall house and property, and fire insurance on the estate. While Tiffany was alive however, he spared no expense to keep the Foundation and its residency program in operation, donating money and property somewhat regularly so that the residency could be kept afloat, even in financially difficult moments. And while Tiffany was alive, his personal largesse sustained the residency for much of the 16 years it was extant.
But the 1930s and 1940s saw a number of difficult years for the Foundation. Louis Comfort Tiffany died in January 1933, leaving the Foundation Board of Trustees empty of its original vitality, and also personally bereft. The year prior to that Tiffany Studios, the artist’s glassworks, had been forced to file for bankruptcy in the wake of the financial crash. Soon after, the economic realities of the Great Depression, along with several cumbersome maintenance issues at Laurelton Hall, saw the Foundation’s financial situation also become increasingly precarious. The house and its grounds required constant upkeep, and the Foundation’s endowment needed to be frequently mined in order to keep the estate running. The board soon realized the situation was neither tenable, nor was it in keeping with Tiffany’s wishes. His prerogative had always been to support artists more than it had been to maintain his property. The collective mindset of the board members shifted following the attack at Pearl Harbor, and the entry of the United States into the Second World War. As the American attitude across the country became increasingly civic-minded, and sacrifices to everyday life were being made in support of the country’s war efforts, the Tiffany Foundation believed its mission should likewise align. It was agreed that offering a retreat experience during a time when so much of the population was readily forswearing not only conveniences but also necessities would be indelicate and possibly decadent. Henry Hobart Nichols, at the time Laurelton Hall’s Director of Student Activities, approached the U.S. Navy to see whether the property would be of use to them for war preparations and activities for the duration of the conflict. On August 1, 1942, the Navy and the Foundation signed an agreement consigning Laurelton Hall to the military, which used the site for the next three years for the development of camouflage technology.
Once the war concluded in 1945, and the Navy had vacated the property at Laurelton Hall, the Tiffany Foundation’s administrators were left with a conundrum: what shall they do to carry on? The difficulties of perpetuating the estate would never recede; the Foundation’s endowment would always be in danger of being plundered in order to keep operations afloat. In September of the following year the New York Times reported,
The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation established in 1919 by the late Louis C. Tiffany for the benefit of artists and craftsmen and housed in his residence, Laurelton Hall, at Cold Spring Harbor, L.I. will be reorganized, the art, property and furnishings auctioned, and the enormous house and most of the sixty acres of the estate sold. 4
A difficult decision was reached: the board would close the residency at Laurelton Hall, sell the property to fund the endowment, and revise its focus, finding other ways to support emerging artists. Things moved rapidly following the announcement. Between 1946 and 1949 the Tiffany Foundation assets were sold at auction and through the parceling of real property. The magnificent, 84-room house, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s crown jewel, was purchased for just $10,000. The last piece of property to go was the carriage house dormitory, the heart and soul of Tiffany’s grand experiment, where a generation of talented, rising artists had first experienced the nascent concept of a residency program. Laurelton Hall was to be no more.
The Tiffany Foundation had long since regrouped by the time fire razed the property in 1957.5 Over the next several decades it committed itself to bestowing funds on worthy artists, a process that manifested in various forms. Immediately after relinquishing Laurelton Hall, the Foundation organized annual competitions for many years, in “a range of categories reflecting Tiffany’s manifold talents and interests,”5 that was administered through the National Academy of Design in New York. At various points it also purchased work from up-and-coming artists for donation to museum collections, ran an apprenticeship program, and made direct, individual grants. By 1980, these various activities coalesced into the program for which the Tiffany Foundation is recognized for today: the biennial awarding of substantial grant money to thirty different artists. This was initiated by Angela Westwater of Sperone Westwater, trustee since 1975 and board president since 1980. The Foundation has no physical location; rather, the American Federation of Arts (AFA) administers it on a day-to-day basis. The number of trustees has varied over the years; today 16 members make up the board. It consists of professionals from both within and outside the art world, as well as a number of artists. Some, like Board President Angela Westwater of Sperone Westwater Gallery, Paul J. Smith, the Director Emeritus of the Museum of Arts and Design, critic, curator, and professor at Yale University Robert Storr, and photographer Cindy Sherman have served for at least 25 years, or even longer. Past board members have included Roy Lichtenstein (1982-1996), Nancy Graves (1989-1995), and Martin Puryear (1988-1998) the 2019 United States representative to the Venice Biennale. Other current and relatively newer members of the Board such as Lyle Ashton Harris, Kerry James Marshall, and Sarah Sze offer heterogeneity reflective of an art world that is slowly but surely becoming increasingly inclusive, as well as the invaluable perspective of existing as artists working within the art world system. (Full disclosure: Phong Bui, the publisher of The Brooklyn Rail, sits on the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Board.) Earlier in their careers, both Marshall and Sze were also recipients of Tiffany grants themselves. “[It was] a huge feeling of support and accomplishment,” Sze says of the grant she received in 1999. “Not just the money, but the history of who has gotten a grant, the peers who get it, and feeling like you are part of a community of artists who are really working hard to have a voice outside the studio. When they asked me to be on the board I felt these are the kind of grants that are really important for fostering creativity and community.”
The American Federation of Arts has administered the Tiffany Foundation since 2015. The stewardship, under AFA’s Director Pauline Willis, ensures the continued stability of the Foundation, which gives away approximately $600,000 every two years and on which they place no restrictions for the money’s use. Since 1980 it has awarded over $10,000,000. There is no application for these grants. Rather, an ever-changing and always anonymous network of curators, art historians, critics, and other arts professionals across the United States nominate artists who they believe are worthy of funding. Rarely do artists know who has nominated them. “Our job is to make sure that the representation of any year of artists is reflecting America,” says Amanda Pajak, the Executive Administrator and Manager of the Foundation. Once nominations have been made a jury of seven individuals—whose makeup also changes with each giving cycle—sits down to do the hard work of narrowing the pool to thirty deserving candidates. “The overriding concept is that it is to give attention to artists who are exploring new areas or exploring their work in some new direction. There’s an open flexibility to keep the giving related to the changing landscape of activity in the arts,” says Paul J. Smith. The talent it has culled over a century is exhilarating in its breadth and depth, and the Foundation’s announcement of its grantees every other year continues to draw headlines. Paul Cadmus was an early resident at Laurelton Hall (1924). In later decades artists as diverse as Lee Bontecou (1959), Toshika Takaezu (1963), and Dale Chihuly (1967) all received grants. More recently, the Foundation has identified artists like Latoya Ruby Frazier (2011), Simone Leigh (2013), Yuji Agematsu (2015), and Juliana Huxtable (2017) just before their careers ignited. In many cases, the prestige of a Tiffany award helps establish an artist’s name recognition. Even more often it provides opportunities for working artists in multifarious and sometimes surprising ways.
The bed of an old flatbed pickup is piled high with materials: shoeshine boxes, speakers, trunks, and a homemade dais. A long wooden armature protrudes from this pile, a large sculpture of a human head and face attached to one end. A cord, like a clothesline, connects from one end of the truck to a hand-built scaffolding, situated some ten paces away. Overhead hang a series of crimson, hand-stitched banners, a large cluster of patchwork shoes. And amidst it all mingle a large group of artists and musicians assembled to participate in the performance of Fit the Battle (2014), conceived and orchestrated by sculptor and new media artist Justin Randolph Thompson. Thompson, a 2013 grantee that divides his time between Baltimore, Maryland and Florence, Italy was able to use the funding he received from the Tiffany Foundation towards the realization of this long-envisioned performance project. Thompson’s work frequently includes an historic component, whereby he highlights a moment (or moments) from African-American history in order to make wider observations about our contemporary landscape, and its often-uncomfortable connections with our collective past. Fit the Battle, held on August 21, 2014 was a one-day event celebrating the legacy of singer and activist Paul Robeson in Peekskill, New York, a town from which he was infamously driven in 1949 for his Communist political beliefs. It included performances by local gospel singers, The Baritone Army of New York, and a keynote address by Mark Anthony Neal, a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, and the host of the popular and long-running weekly webcast, Left of Black. “I was caught completely off guard by my nomination for this award and it actually restored my faith in the art world in a certain sense,” says Thompson, noting that it “pushed me in my ambition and told me that it was okay to experiment. I was a bit reckless in creating this work but it was a recklessness driven by a sincere desire to contribute to the social-based work I knew would leave a lasting record of what is possible when funding is provided… I dove head in without hesitation.” Mary Reid Kelley, an artist who, often working in tandem with her partner Patrick Kelley, makes haunting black-and-white films, for which she also writes the scripts and designs the sets and costumes, concurs that the work must remain primary. Also a 2013 grantee, she observes that winning a generous grant also comes with responsibility. “It’s great to enjoy that moment for a period of time,” Kelley says. “But then you have to move on and do justice to their confidence in you, and get back to work.”
The ongoing commitment to recognizing crafts artists as much as it does fine artists is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the grants bequeathed by the Foundation. “We don’t have a formula or ruling but we do list the artists working in the craft media as a segment and there’s always a portion of the grants that are given to a potter, a glassblower, a metalsmith, what have you. That has been maintained as part of the focus of the foundation, along with newer areas of photography, film, video, computer art, and performance,” Smith notes. “The fact that it involved crafts was interesting to me,” adds photographer and longtime board member Cindy Sherman, a factor that figured into her original decision to join the Tiffany Foundation. The division between “fine arts” and “craft,” though somewhat arbitrary, is deeply ingrained. And though the line continues to blur, especially as inroads are made in scholarship in fields such as ceramics and fiber arts, and talent is more readily recognized, the fact remains that far less funding is given out to artists working in craft-based media.
For ceramic artist Matthew Solomon, who makes his work from a studio in rural upstate New York, his 2017 grant was profound. “I don’t have a gallery,” Solomon says. “I’ve never had a show. So for [the Foundation] to say ‘we recognize what you’re doing and it’s good’—it’s a good thing to have when you’re feeling low.” In many ways, Solomon typifies the Tiffany Foundation’s commitment. After studying art in college, he worked at a variety of jobs across the country, before returning to his native New York and pursuing a law degree, following the footsteps of his parents, who both were lawyers. He practiced law for many years, but eventually found the pressures of the job, combined with a long commute, were taking a toll on his physical and emotional wellbeing. After taking up gardening originally as a stress-relieving hobby, his true path “just immediately became so clear to me.” Solomon quit his law career and relocated upstate, and began his ceramics practice, which he has now pursued for 15 years. His ceramics give voice to his passion for gardening, with additional nods to nature, Japanese bonsai, and art historical influences. Sumptuous and florid, imbued with rich color, the work nods to both art nouveau and the sublime. “I’m going more in the direction of my own point of view, since winning this prize,” says Solomon. “I’m an anachronism of sorts, but I think it would be horrible if everybody just made work that fit what was in vogue.”
In 2016, the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts amounted to $147.9 million dollars, or just .004 percent of the entire federal budget. As public funding for the arts continues to dwindle in America, artists must increasingly look to private sources to generate funds. As they continue to proliferate, organized, well-endowed artist foundations can help fill this money gap while also tendering an artist’s philanthropic legacy. Andrew Foote, Treasurer of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation: “Today's investment environment provides a serious challenge to the Foundation’s mission. Our targeted awards to the artist community far exceed what one could earn today in the investment markets. In order to maintain our position without taking undue risk, we need to grow the size of the funds through additional gifts from the philanthropic communities.” To draw on Sze’s observation, foundations like Tiffany can offer a supportive community to a class of artists who must otherwise work without a safety net. And the more artists who are sustained, the more accessible to all becomes the kind of critical thinking art not only fosters, but demands; the kind of critical thinking that so often seems absent from public discussion at large today. Today, nearly nothing remains of Laurelton Hall. Time, indifference, and the subdivision of property on that tract of Long Island have taken what little the fire left behind. But what Louis Comfort Tiffany began in that summer home, a program designed specifically to nurture unacknowledged talent, abides. A century later, it’s a phoenix that continues to rise from the ashes.
- Mark Rosenthal, “Artists Extending Their Reach,” Brooklyn Rail (December 2018-January 2019), p. 37
Letter from Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham to Robert Koch, dated 1965. Quoted in Koch, Richard Louis C. Tiffany: Rebel in Glass, Updated Third Edition (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1982), viii.
John Kimberly Mumford, “The Year at the Tiffany Foundation,” Arts & Decoration (Vol. 14, February 1921), 273.
“Tiffany Property to Go at Auction,” New York Times, September, 8, 1946. The article misstated the Foundation’s date of establishment. The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation was incorporated on July 30, 1918.
Shortly after the fire, collectors Hugh and Jeanette McKean salvaged and purchased many of the furnishings, windows, and other artifacts that survived. Most of these are now housed in the collection of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum. A four-column loggia from the house is also in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Mission Statement (February 2019), 1.