Joel Wachs, President, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Joel Wachs, President, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

"The Warhol Foundation today is unsurpassed as a source sustaining the vital ecosystem of artist-centered organizations found in communities throughout the [United States]," wrote Christine J. Vincent, former deputy for media, arts, and culture at the Ford Foundation, in a recent article in Art Newspaper. "There is no other foundation in the U.S. today, artist-endowed or otherwise, working at [its] scale in these ways."

Indeed, the Warhol Foundation has managed not only to sustain itself during one of the worst economic downturns in decades, it has become a model for other artist-endowed foundations looking to optimize their "assets in support of [a] charitable purpose." It has done so, in part, by making a few critical changes — including, most recently, partnering with Christie's to auction off the remainder of Warhol's estate.

In September, PND spoke with Joel Wachs, president of the Warhol Foundation, about how the recession influenced the foundation's decision to sell the rest of the legendary pop artist's works and about its social media presence, or lack thereof. A former member of the Los Angeles City Council, Wachs joined the foundation in 2001.

Philanthropy News Digest: How does the Warhol Foundation advance the visual arts?

Joel Wachs: We accomplish our mission by supporting artists and the nonprofit arts organizations that support and serve artists, including nonprofit arts publications. The grants, which are given primarily to organizations in the United States, are used for the creation, presentation, and documentation of art, with a particular emphasis on art that's experimental, challenging in nature, and often under-recognized. We also vigorously defend freedom of artistic expression whenever it's under threat, whether by joining in lawsuits or by supporting people who have been censored or have had their artistic expression compromised. And from time to time we step in when there's a weather-related emergency by supporting artists and arts organizations that are affected by such a disaster.

PND: Do you support individual artists?

JW: We do. Our charter requires that we give grants to registered nonprofit organizations. But when the National Endowment for the Arts ceased giving grants to individual artists in the late 1990s, we worked in partnership with several other foundations to launch Creative Capital to help address this need. Today, Creative Capital — which provides integrated financial and advisory support to artists working in five disciplines, including emerging fields, film/video, literature, performing arts, and visual arts — receives half its budget from the foundation and operates rent-free out of our office.

In addition, we launched a re-granting program that identifies artist-centered nonprofits in different cities across the country and gives them money to identify and support individual artists in their respective communities.

PND: Did the sluggish recovery influence the foundation's decision to sell the rest of the Warhols in its possession and dissolve its authentication board?

JW: It greatly influenced our decision. In the wake of the recession, we noticed that many of our grantees were seeing significant government and private-sector funding cuts, and they needed additional help. Although we give away about $13 million a year in cash grants and have provided nearly $250 million in grants since Andy died, we felt we had to do more. So, we looked at all our expenses to see where we could cut back, and then we reviewed our revenue streams to find where we could increase our income. That resulted in our decision to cease authentication, which had been very costly, and discontinue direct art sales, which have a high overhead. We also began working to form a long-term partnership with Christie's to monetize the remainder of our art inventory while building the endowment further. We hope we'll be able to increase our annual grantmaking budget by nearly 50 percent over the next few years to about $20 million a year.

PND: A recent article in Art Newspaper called artist-endowed foundations like the Warhol Foundation "a bright spot in the flagging cultural philanthropy field in the U.S." What role do you think the foundation should play in helping to grow this subset of charitable organizations?

JW: We believe that what Andy has done, by leaving all his work to a foundation for the visual arts, will inspire other artists to do similar things. A few years ago, we started working on a study that the author of the Art Newspaper article, Christine Vincent, has taken the lead on under the aegis of the Aspen Institute about artist-endowed foundations. Through that work, we hope that the various ways in which artist-endowed foundations can support other artists becomes clear to all artists who are considering creating their own foundations.

The Warhol Foundation wants to work with and help other creative artists who have the resources to do something similar to what Andy has done. A number of them have already done so. Robert Rauschenberg, for example, who passed away in 2008, left all his assets to a foundation in his name. And Mike Kelley, who died recently, has done the same.

At the same time, it is important to remember that, as Vincent makes very clear in her article and in her consulting work with foundations, one size doesn't fit all when it comes to this work, because everyone isn't in the same situation. There are many different ways that artists can use their assets to help other artists and arts organizations. Each foundation has to find the path that's right for it, and its namesake.

PND: The foundation doesn't have a very large social media presence. What are your plans for social media going forward?

JW: It's true we haven't really emphasized social media as a way of promoting ourselves. I guess we've been a little bit modest in that sense, but we have put up a Facebook page.

What we are doing, however, is looking at how the foundation might use social media to amplify the good work our grantees are doing. In that scenario, social media for us would serve as a means of interaction and communication with the people around the country we support. So we're actually bringing together the directors from a few small arts nonprofits to have a roundtable discussion about the best ways we can use social media. That's actually how most of our programs grow: We try to be responsive to the constituencies we serve, and we really try to have feedback from the field and the groups we're serving when developing programs.

Regina Mahone