Keeping His Vision Alive

One of Manhattan’s least known architectural landmarks, the Bayard Building near Washington Square, has all but disappeared behind scaffolding while undergoing renovation. Few passersby even glimpse the vertical terra cotta moldings and ornate reliefs on the facade of the 1897 structure--much less guess that it’s the only building in New York designed by Louis Sullivan, the architect known as the father of the skyscraper.

Those who enter the building on Bleecker Street and take an elevator to the seventh floor are in for another surprise. Here in a 7,500-square-foot, high-ceilinged space--divided into work stations and bare-bones offices--is the nerve center of Andy Warhol’s philanthropic legacy. Money comes in from art sales, licenses and investments. And money goes out to support contemporary art, freedom of expression and scholarship on Warhol. Paradoxical as it may seem, the artist who is sometimes dismissed as a flash in Pop art’s pan has gained lustrous stature through a high-minded nonprofit foundation.

During his closely watched life, Warhol often answered reporters’ long, searching questions with a cryptic yes or no. At his death, in 1987, he left an enormous body of work with a brief directive to use it for “the advancement of the visual arts.” His family, friends and business associates didn’t have much to go on, but the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has become the nation’s leading funder of cutting-edge contemporary art. Since its inception in 1988, the foundation has given $51.2 million in grants. An additional $6 million is budgeted for grants in the fiscal year that ends April 30, 2003.

“Andy was an incredibly liberating force, and that creates the framework for the foundation’s philanthropic efforts,” said Joel Wachs, the longtime Los Angeles city councilman and contemporary art collector who moved to New York and became president and CEO of the foundation last October. “He really represented democracy in terms of being yourself and valuing diversity. In his name and his spirit, we want to help provide opportunities for creative people to make and show their work, whether it’s popular or not, without the pressures of government support. We try to nurture an environment from which future Andys will come.”

The foundation--which got $25.3 million in seed money from a 1988 auction of Warhol’s personal collection--has had a tumultuous history. But it has come a long way since its birth, when Warhol’s close friend and advisor Frederick W. Hughes established it with the help of Vincent Fremont, a longtime colleague, and John Warhola, the artist’s brother.


“We wanted to be nimble, engaged, not stuffy or bureaucratic,” said Archibald L. Gillies, who served as foundation president from 1990 to 2001 and played a major role in shaping its programs. But first Gillies and his colleagues had to not only organize mountains of Warhol’s art, archives and related possessions, but also fend off a batch of lawsuits.

The worst was a court battle instigated by Edward W. Hayes, an attorney for Warhol’s estate and the foundation who claimed that the estate had been grossly undervalued and that he was owed a percentage of it amounting to $16 million. After eight years of countersuits and appeals, Hayes was forced to repay the foundation some of the fees already paid him.

Despite such distractions, the foundation managed to give away $1.8 million to $2.5 million annually during its first seven years. And the sum has grown steadily since then.

“Arch Gillies deserves a lot of credit,” said Werner H. Kramarsky, the foundation’s board president. “In the early years, he was an embattled person in a difficult situation. There will always be intellectual property lawsuits; those go with the territory. But when Arch left, he had disposed of all the troublesome lawsuits. The foundation was as solid as could be. Joel came in with a wonderfully clean slate.”

The foundation gives grants to cultural organizations, not individual artists, but the money funds projects that benefit artists as directly as possible, program director Pamela Clapp said.

She and two associates travel widely to “seek out the best and brightest people involved in contemporary art at a range of institutions, from contemporary art museums to artist-driven organizations that give artists their first opportunities to show their work,” she said.

Although the foundation focuses on innovative work by young artists and welcomes challenging projects with political or social content, it also funds new scholarship on established figures. The last round of grants includes a $30,000 award to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, a San Antonio arts organization that focuses on women, for its “Exhibiciones Activas” series on the art of four Latinas; $50,000 to the Maine College of Art in Portland for its “William Pope.L: eRacism” show, featuring the politically charged work of a performance artist; and $60,000 for an artist-in-residence program at Spaces, a community art center in Cleveland. In the past, the foundation has given the nod to everything from public art in Miami to a digital film project at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City and “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera, 1962-1972,” a traveling exhibition of Italian art currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

In addition to grants for specific projects, the foundation has launched the Warhol Initiative to help struggling arts organizations become self-sufficient. Each year, eight organizations are awarded about $100,000 apiece, along with professional assistance to help them use the money productively. This year’s recipients include two of L.A.'s community art centers, Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in Hollywood.

The foundation also leverages its funds by working with other organizations, Wachs said. In a response to the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts’ grants to individuals in 1996, the Warhol Foundation’s leaders rallied a consortium of 20 foundations and individuals to establish Creative Capital.

Launched in 1999--with major funding and office space provided by the Warhol Foundation--the independent fund provides artists with direct financial aid and technical support to develop projects and audiences.

Unlike most other grant-making foundations, the Warhol Foundation earns the bulk of its income--and simultaneously builds a cash endowment--from the sale of art created by a single artist. At the same time, the foundation does “everything possible to secure his reputation and create a much broader and greater depth of understanding of the body of work he created,” Wachs said.

One monumental project is a six-volume Warhol catalogue raisonne. The first volume, a lavishly illustrated tome covering paintings and sculpture from 1961 through 1963, has just been published. But for those who want to see the actual works, the most extensive repository is the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the artist’s hometown.

In 1989, two years after his death, the foundation signed a joint venture agreement with the Dia Center for the Arts in New York and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh to establish the museum. It opened in 1994, stocked with a foundation gift of 3,200 Warhol works--800 paintings and more than 1,000 drawings, along with prints, films, video and audiotapes, and the artist’s extensive archive--valued at more than $61 million. Dia contributed 150 additional works by Warhol; Carnegie secured funding for the facility and administers the museum.

To improve other American museums’ holdings of Warhol’s work, in 1992 the foundation sold 103 works to 24 museums at undisclosed prices, said to be about half of market value. Meanwhile, Vincent Fremont, who worked closely with Warhol for 20 years and now has an office in a cavernous space above a Diesel clothing store on Union Square, has negotiated hundreds of sales from the foundation’s collection. Initially the exclusive agent for all the work, Fremont now handles paintings, sculpture and drawings, while an associate, Tim Hunt, sells prints and photography. All sales are approved by the foundation’s board of directors.

“Don’t call me for ‘60s paintings,” Fremont said. The most valuable works are long gone, in sales that yielded $23.1 million in 1998, $31.2 million 1999, $29 million in 2000 and $23 million in 2001.

But the foundation still has about $28 million of Warhol’s work, stored at a warehouse-like facility in Chelsea, where chief curator Claudia Defendi presides over a staff of seven curators and art handlers.

As Warhol’s artistic legacy dwindles in the storerooms, it feeds the foundation’s coffers. Over the years, the art assets have been converted into an endowment, which has grown to $120 million. That’s still relatively small in the world of charitable foundations. The Pew Charitable Trusts, for example, has $4.3 billion in assets; it gave $230 million in grants last year, of which $24.5 million went to a broad range of cultural institutions and programs.

But Warhol’s pot of gold is likely to grow considerably with the development of another source of revenue: a line of products that incorporates Warhol’s name and images.

Far beyond the art-inspired mugs, T-shirts and refrigerator magnets commonly sold in museum shops, some of these products are already available in Los Angeles at MOCA’s store in conjunction with the “Andy Warhol Retrospective,” which opens Saturday. There are denim purses decorated with sequined dollar signs, beaded evening bags adorned with the image of a high-heeled shoe or a Campbell’s Soup can, drawstring totes in the shape of soup cans, silver rings with inset flowers and light-switch plates covered with grids of Elvis Presley portraits.

It’s only a sampling of an enterprise masterminded by Martin Cribbs, the foundation’s licensing director. While all the products come with a tag extolling Warhol as “the preeminent American artist of the 20th century” who “challenged the world to see art differently,” Cribbs said he has targeted “20-year-olds who see Andy Warhol as a sort of rock star,” along with many other consumers who are not part of the usual contemporary art audience.

“If you only look at Warhol in the hallowed halls of museums, you miss the enormous influence he has had on popular culture,” he said. “That has great resonance for everybody, so we try to capitalize on it.”

While many products shout “Warhol,” others incorporate little-known images in relatively subtle ways. “Consumers who buy this don’t know it’s Andy Warhol. They just think it’s cute,” Cribbs said of a large glass bowl adorned with a cherub, manufactured by Rosenthal AG in Germany. “The market is so competitive, we can’t count on selling a product with Andy Warhol’s name alone.”

To deal with that competition internationally, the foundation has entered into a partnership with the Beanstalk Group, which promotes such brands as Coca-Cola and Harley-Davidson. As the exclusive licensing agent for Warhol products in North America and Europe, Beanstalk will market a wide array of products including dinnerware, bedding, wallpaper, jewelry, clothing--some of which have been developed for specific markets. One style of jeans--jointly licensed with Coca-Cola and decorated with that company’s wavy red stripe on one back pocket and a graffiti-like Warhol signature on the opposite pant leg--is sold only in Germany. A line of bathing suits is exclusive to Brazil.

Sensitive to possible charges of exploitation and commercialization, the board of directors has created a special committee to “keep a tight rein” on licensing, board President Kramarsky said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t get criticized, but it you think back to Andy, he was perfectly happy to use any image any way.” What’s more, he said, licensing revenue “supports the visual arts, particularly younger artists and younger institutions, and makes a very direct effort to protect artists’ freedom of expression at a time when that is quite often under attack.”

Beyond adding up the money-in and money-out totals, how can the Warhol foundation’s impact be measured?

East L.A.'s Self-Help Graphics, a grass-roots printmaking workshop and gallery, has operated for nearly 30 years on a shoestring budget, and its share of Warhol largess is only beginning to be felt. Receiving a $100,000 Initiative grant is both an honor and godsend, executive director Tomas Benitez said.

The opportunity came as something of a surprise. Potential recipients are invited to apply for grants, which pay for basic “capacity-building"--including technical assistance, office equipment, endowments, mortgage payments and cash reserves. Self-Help sent in its application and hoped for the best. Once it “won,” the workshop and gallery began working with the foundation to set up a specific plan.

“It’s an enlightened approach,” Benitez said. “It compels a dialogue that might not take place naturally, where key staff, key board members and artists talk with a consultant about how to put these resources to best use. We have to ask ourselves how we can use this money to serve artists better and add to the cultural landscape.”

Whatever the final plan, the Warhol Initiative’s stamp of approval is almost as big a shot in the arm as the much-needed money. Call it the 15-minutes-of-fame effect: “It gives us cultural capital,” Benitez said, “as we talk to people about what we do and why it’s important.”


Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer.