The Artist as Philanthropist

This feature originally appeared in the April issue of Metropolis M magazine in Dutch translation:

On the face of it, the artist as philanthropist is an unlikely proposition. While some artists may be born into wealth, their chosen profession offers few prospects of financial stability and independence, let alone affluence on the scale that the term philanthropy (from the Greek, ‘love of humanity’) ordinarily implies. Though they can occasionally overlap, what distinguishes philanthropy from plain charity is vision, a clear purpose, financial clout, and an institutional framework that makes it possible to take a long-term view and address problems at their source. An artist is far more likely to be on the receiving end of philanthropic initiatives set up by wealthy patrons – the beneficiary rather than the benefactor.

Yet one could argue that artists, even of modest means, are at an advantage where charitable giving is concerned. In addition to their time, money and reputation, they can put their art in the service of a given cause. Artworks are their chief assets in this regard. Sold off at a benefit auction, the work of a sought-after and commercially successful artist can fetch significant sums. Take, for instance, Turner Prize winner Anthony Gormley, who supports a variety of causes, from the UK-based health charity Paintings in Hospitals to Comic Relief, which fights poverty and social injustice in the UK and abroad. His 2011 sculpture SUBMIT IV commanded the highest price (£300,000) at Unicef UK’s SyriART auction that raised a total of £750,000 – matched pound for pound by the UK government – in aid of refugee children in December 2014. Or else market star Marlene Dumas, several of whose figurative paintings have sold for over a million dollars in the past decade, including My Mother Before She Became My Mother (2010), which went for $2 million (nearly three times its estimated value) at an Artists for Haiti auction held in September 2011 at Christie’s in New York.

But artists need not be auction house record breakers for their gifts in kind to generate funds for philanthropic schemes, large and small. Educator and philosopher Bartosz Przybył-Ołowski, who is married to artist Paulina Ołowska, was thus able to enlist the support of Polish and international artist friends who donated 78 works for an auction in support of his RazemPamoja Foundation, which fosters mutual help and dialogue (as opposed to one-sided giving) between schools and communities in Poland and in Nairobi, Kenya, taking the form of mural exchanges, exhibitions, documentary and book projects. This parity, reflected in the foundation’s name – razem and pamoja mean ‘together’ in Polish and Swahili – is visually expressed in the striking peanut-shaped logo devised by Ołowska. As well as funding workshops and stipends destined for high school students in Nairobi’s Mathare slums, the proceeds from the ‘Learning, Sharing, Acting’ auction, which took place in January 2015 at Warsaw’s Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, helped to offset the costs of the eponymous Le Monde diplomatique publication, Into Africa: Learning, Sharing, Acting (2014). The book comes in two sizes: a funky magazine-size format designed free of charge by Stuart Bailey complements the more conventional paperback edition.

In conversation with former Goldsmiths teacher and student Martin Craig-Martin at a session titled ‘Goldsmiths Gallery: Artists as Philanthropists’ of the Art360: The Gift and its Legacy conference hosted by Goldsmiths on 19 February, the college’s Head of the Department of Art Richard Noble praised the ‘unbelievably generous’ response of alumni whom he personally approached to ramp up support for a new public art gallery that will be housed in a listed Victorian bathhouse on the campus. The £1,8 million conversion had been entrusted to Assemble, last year’s Turner Prize winners. As befits an institution that counts no fewer than seven Turner Prize winners among its alumni, the artist names beneath each lot at the dedicated charity auction read like the Who’s Who of British contemporary art with works from, among other, Damian Hirst, Anthony Gormley, Bridget Riley, Mark Wallinger, Yinka Shonibare, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing, Steve McQueen, Michael Landy, and Craig-Martin himself.


Far from being an isolated instance of generosity towards one’s alma mater, the artists Noble spoke to pointed out that they were asked to donate work to auction virtually every week. Craig-Martin concurred: ‘Once … you’ve made the mistake of giving something to a charitable auction, you then are deluged with requests. You cannot imagine the range of causes. … Auctioning art is seen by a lot of fundraisers as the easiest way in the world of raising money.’ While artists find it hard not to respond to similar requests, there are pitfalls to this kind of charitable giving. If a work is sold off significantly below its market price – as is often the case at benefit auctions where buyers seek bargains and charities ready cash – it can be extremely damaging to an artist’s career (though sometimes a gallerist will step in to buy the work at its ‘real’ value). ‘The more generous the gift, the greater the risk you’re taking,’ cautioned Craig-Martin.

These risks partly explain why such market-savvy artists as Marlene Dumas offer their work up for auctions only exceptionally. But there are other ways for artists to be philanthropists. They may choose to give work directly to a public museum, gallery or library that would not otherwise be able to buy it on the market. Cash-strapped institutions wishing to build up their contemporary art collections actively solicit such gifts. An artist may also put a cash prize that he or she had been awarded in the service of a cause they deem worthy. Dumas thus pledged €100,000 from the Johannes Vermeer Award she won in 2012 towards the Ateliers Support Fund to rescue an artist-run academy, where she herself has taught.

At a time of dwindling state and corporate support for the arts, philanthropy offers a third way – or so our governments encourage us to think. And who is better placed than the artists themselves to understand and seek to address fellow artists needs? Set up by artists Bridget Riley, Peter Sedgley and Peter Townsend in 1968, the SPACE project originally responded to a specific need: the dire shortage of affordable studio spaces in London. Empty warehouses, factories, schools, and other sites that could be converted into studio spaces and let out to artists presented a solution to the problem. The scheme took off and subsequently flourished in large part owing to the generosity of sculptor Henry Moore who chose the project as the recipient of the Erasmus Prize he won in 1968, the year when SPACE Studios (as it’s known today) was founded. ‘He was our first and best sponsor,’ one of the artists explains in The SPACE Story video made not long after the charity was established.[1]

Supporting charitable causes or artist-led initiatives is often a prelude to starting a foundation (a tax-exempt, not-for-profit organization benefiting the public), one that reflects the artist’s values, concerns and his or her actual practice. Moore and Riley are a case in point. In 1977, ten years prior to his death, Moore who was known for his socialist views set up the Henry Moore Foundation, the largest artist-endowed foundation in Europe, and the first of its kind in England. One of the most lavish arts charities around, the HMF gives out £1 million in grants every year – roughly what the prolific and by the end of his career enormously wealthy artist was paying in income tax when he decided to set up his charity, at least in part to off-set this tax burden – to individuals and arts organizations. In keeping with the founder’s wishes, the bulk of the support is focused on sculpture (albeit in the expanded sense). The same applies to the Leeds-based Henry Moore Institute, which grew out of a centre for the study of sculpture; it now doubles as an exhibition and research venue with an outstanding specialized library and sculpture archive.

Registered as a charity in June 2011, the Bridget Riley Art Foundation is still relatively new and among the few artist-endowed foundations to become active during the artist’s lifetime (most tend to be founded posthumously by surviving spouses or relatives). With more limited means at her disposal than Moore, who poured all of his vast resources into endowing the HMF towards the end of his life, Riley is very precise in what she set out to do with the foundation that bears her name. So far the BRAF has funded a three-year project designed to expose students in and outside London to the Old Master and Modern drawings at the British Museum that she discovered as a student at Goldsmiths. This initiative, which led to the creation of two new curatorial posts at the British Museum, is part of the BRAF’s wider aims to investigate and nurture drawing practice among university art students.

Not all artist foundations are this specific in setting out their goals and the ways of achieving them. The trustees acting on the artist’s behalf often have ample room for manoeuvre. When the Alberses set up their foundation in 1971, ‘the guidelines were both beautiful and wonderfully vague’, says the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation’s project manager Nicholas Murphy, who directs the Thread residency program in the village of Sinthian, Senegal. Inaugurated in March 2015, Thread is meant to enable artists and writers working in any medium to expose themselves to ‘new frontiers’ in the pioneering spirit that characterized the artist couple’s life and work. For Murphy, the Thread building itself – which acts a cultural centre with residency facilities as well as an agricultural hub – illustrates the not-for-profit organization’s core belief that ‘art, culture and architecture should be supported alongside health, agriculture and education’. ‘Art isn’t the end of development,’ Murphy insists, invoking the locally-based project initiator Dr Magueye Ba, ‘art is development.’[2]

Cultural philanthropy may well be on the rise yet it is but a fraction of philanthropic activity overall. Artist foundations themselves have been expertly mapped out thanks to the Aspen Institute Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative (AEFI), which issued an exhaustive report in 2010 (updated in 2013) sub-titled ‘The Artist as Philanthropist’[3] – the phrase appears to have caught on. One important limitation of the study, from a European perspective, is that it only surveys the American field. International artist-endowed foundations are relegated to a chapter (at the end of the two-volume report) written by the AEFI Project Director Christine Vincent in an attempt to remedy this. Yet at a time when American-style philanthropy is held up as an example for us all, artists outside the US considering to go down that route would do well to take stock of its findings. Speaking at the ‘Artists as Philanthropists’ session of the Goldsmiths conference, Craig-Martin who grew up in the US was keen to impress on the audience what the American dream implies: once you’ve made it, you’re fully expected to give it back.


[2] In a Skype interview with the author on 9 February 2015.

[3] The full report is available for online consultation at




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