Joan Mitchell Foundation
“By continually developing and implementing novel concepts and ideas, the Foundation serves as a model for younger artist foundations looking to form their own goals and legacies.”
In order to understand the motivations and mission behind the Joan Mitchell Foundation, it is helpful to first understand that artist Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) placed art above all else, both at the center of her own life and through supporting her artist peers—thick in the battle and euphoria of the studio—who surrounded her during her lifetime. Mitchell was a pioneer artist in Post-War New York, earning an esteemed reputation among her Abstract-Expressionist cohort while also creating a dialogue with the French Impressionists of the previous century. Mitchell saw herself as a weed in the garden, embodying a tenacious spirit that stood out with particular strength during a time when most art made by women was overlooked and unremarked upon. Today, she is considered an iconic twentieth-century painter, as is reflected in Joan Mitchell, the current retrospective exhibition dedicated to her work. The show opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2021 and traveled to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it is on view through mid-August 2022. In the fall, the Louis Vuitton Foundation will open its own exhibition in Paris, where a French language documentary Joan Mitchell, une femme dans l’abstraction (2020), produced by ARTE and directed by Stéphane Ghez will also be shown. This final leg of the show will honor Mitchell’s connection with France, where she made her home for over 30 years, inspired and invigorated by the landscapes and the heritage that also captivated Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, artists whom she cited as influences.
The Joan Mitchell Foundation was formed in 1993, a year after the artist’s death. As Mitchell specified in her will, the Foundation would act as the main steward of her legacy and also fulfill a charitable mission to “aid and assist” artists. The Foundation funds its programs through strategic sales of artwork and therefore does not fundraise, an uncommon circumstance for a non-profit. The Board of Directors is comprised of nine members who serve as thought-partners to one another in collaboration with the Executive Director, Christa Blatchford. Often, fulfilling a foundation’s purpose can be challenging if its board remains insular. To counter this, the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s board members are limited to three-year appointments, with a maximum number of three terms of service. They represent different fields of expertise and together hold each other accountable to the values of transparency, accessibility, and equity. Foundation staff and board members are often also practicing artists themselves; artists hold a third of the board and steer the mission. Artist Jean Shin is President of the Board and emphasizes Mitchell’s generosity. “She centered her work above all, but in the meantime she thrived sharing her experience with other artists.”
Though the Foundation instituted programming from its outset, providing support to artists through grants, it took ten years for Mitchell’s estate to settle. Upon its resolution, the Foundation received its artwork collection, as well as Mitchell’s archives, allowing for greater expansion. Since 2004, the Foundation has increased its staff and undertaken ambitious projects dedicated to better understanding Mitchell’s work, such as a compilation of a catalogue raisonné, encouraging publications and exhibitions, amassing an archive, and assembling an accessible and comprehensive website. In conjunction with the Foundation’s staff, the board and executive directors also have envisioned programs geared to directly supporting artists and their work in the form of cash grants, artist residencies, providing resources for estate planning and best practices for archiving artwork, and arts education. All are shaped by Mitchell’s spirit and legacy—one that listens to artists, includes them in the Foundation’s decision-making process, and adapts support to changing societal needs. By continually developing and implementing novel concepts and ideas, the Foundation serves as a model for younger artist foundations looking to form their own goals and legacies.
“Legacy stewardship,” one of the principal responsibilities of the Foundation, “is a long and slow process,” affirms Blatchford. Projects undertaken to understand Mitchell’s work involve archive management, catalogue raisonné research, conservation study, and initiation of exhibitions and publications. When asked what she would like to see more of through foundational support, Blatchford advocated for “direct support to artists, because it’s about giving forward, and when you’re doing that charitable purpose, it also feeds the legacy in a [more] profound and current way than simply using resources for only stewarding the artist’s work.” Mitchell formed deep bonds with other artists throughout her life, including writer Samuel Beckett, poet Frank O’Hara, and painter Joyce Pensato, to whom she once confided in a 1981 letter (on view in the retrospective), “Painting is made with Feeling. One has to have the guts to feel and love outside oneself.” Of her relationship with Mitchell, composer Gisèle Barreau recounted in her essay “Joan and ‘la musique à peindre’” (2020) that “our relationship also functioned in language, words inseparable from colors and sounds because everything is vibration; we breathed the same air.” Intertwined with the legacy of her work is the legacy of the community around the work.
The Foundation acquired a spacious office in Chelsea in 2012, where Mitchell’s archives are now housed in professional facilities, managed for the past ten years by Director of Archives & Research Laura Morris, while also providing support to researchers and curators working on Mitchell-related publication and exhibition projects. The archive holds over 10,000 photographs, correspondence, works on paper and sketchbooks, studio materials, estate papers, and gallery records, as well as Mitchell’s library, and family objects. Having a complete archive helps enhance Mitchell’s biography, which in turn informs her work, revealing details like what she read, where and when she traveled, and who was part of her community. As the primary research center for subjects pertaining to Mitchell’s life and work, the Foundation forms active relationships and ongoing dialogue with interested professionals and scholars like curators Katy Siegel and Sarah Roberts, whose five-year investigation resulted in the present, multifaceted retrospective. The Foundation was a critical supportive partner throughout the project, propelled by a responsibility to nurture much-needed scholarship. Once the catalogue raisonné, a publication uniting all of Mitchell’s paintings (with already seven years of research behind it) is complete, it will be the primary source for scholars to gain access to information about Mitchell’s work. In the future, the Foundation plans to open an active reading room to accommodate researchers from high school to doctoral level. Other potential plans include conducting a materials analysis of Mitchell’s paints to inform the study and care of work from her time period, providing research fellowships for art historians contributing to the study of her work, and publishing her correspondence so that the artist’s direct voice can be more widely shared.
A legacy implies that, in a way, one’s life could be eternal through the perpetuation of one’s work. Another aspect of the Foundation’s mission is to support artists who are working today by giving them the knowledge and tools needed to think about and craft their own legacies, driven by Mitchell’s understanding of the significance of what an artist leaves behind, as well as her proficiency in community building. The Creating a Living Legacy program (CALL) was developed to create dialogues between artists of differing generations. In an early iteration of the program, CALL matched “legacy specialists,” emerging artists who often are already involved with the Foundation’s educational programs and who also have working knowledge of career documentation, with mature mid-career artists, who needed professional assistance organizing their work to meet interest from curators, dealers, and scholars. Begun in 2012 with the program’s first four grants of $50,000 each awarded to Mildred Howard, Elemore Morgan, Jr., Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Freddy Rodríguez, CALL strategized with the artists to develop individualized, sustainable practices for archiving each of their artworks. Former legacy specialist and teaching artist Lehna Huie worked with CALL artist Marcos Dimas in 2015 and recounted the three objectives of her team for Dimas’s work: “focus on a digital inventory database by going through decades of work (40-plus years) in flat files, build out and organize a physical storage, and listen to the artist’s process and journey to assemble his reflections and tell his story.”
Lessons learned from working with artists awarded CALL grants over the years have resulted in digital guidebooks on career documentation, estate planning for individual artists, and a third estate planning guide geared towards attorneys and executors, all available for free on the Foundation’s website. Collaborating with estate planning attorneys, the Foundation developed these accessible manuals to help artists understand what considerations they should take when making a will, valuing assets, and thinking about the stewardship of artwork in longevity. Artist Programs Manager Shervone Neckles-Ortiz, a practicing artist herself, says “when you start to have a conversation with the artist with what they want for their work, they also want others to know, to appreciate, and to interpret the work, and one of the things that artists want is good quality scholarship. When there is documentation of the work, it honors the time, energy, and work put into the studio.” For many artists, reflecting on one’s mortality and contemplation of their future legacy is not a given, but CALL helps nurture these important questions through its multigenerational support and relationship building. “Every artist needs to do this because there is a young person or a community out there, who would gain from being aware of this artist’s existence, their work, and their contribution to their history and their cultural expression,” Neckles-Ortiz continues. According to Antonia Perez, legacy specialist to artist Joel Overstreet, “it’s such an incredible privilege to be that closely related to an artist’s life’s work, to get that kind of insight, to have the physical handling of all these works, and their friendship.”
The guidebooks also help artists think about the footprint they will leave behind. Perez sometimes suggests editing down an oeuvre. “If it’s not your best work and you don’t want somebody out there to think that work represents you, then consider getting rid of that work,” she notes, though with the caveat that “if it connects to the context of understanding the trajectory of other more important works, it might be important to keep it for that reason.” Artist centered programs like Creative Capital, Residency Unlimited, and the Joan Mitchell Center residency in New Orleans already make use of the Foundation’s guidebooks in professional development workshops. Perez suggests students of MFA programs would also benefit from a dedicated course on the preservation of work, useful knowledge for all stages of an artist’s life. This year, the Foundation will publish a revised edition of the career documentation guide, adding new insights on budgeting, crafting inventory, and digital asset management, and recommendations for the long-term preservation and presentation of the life’s work and career of an artist.
In the fifteen years since it was initiated, CALL has created an extended family of artists growing together across multiple points in their careers, becoming mentors to one another, and building a community of alumni who share resources. The first decade of the Foundation’s programmatic growth, led until 2014 by former Executive Director Carolyn Somers, included education programs where middle and high school students like Joseph Gonzalez could take Saturday classes instructed by teaching artists. In 2007, the program gave Gonzalez an entry into an arts community when he was fourteen years old. Later, he became a CALL apprentice where he learned art handling, time management, and documentation, skills that contributed to his career. “I believe I am giving back not only through my career in art and toy design so other people can play with what I create as entertainment, exploration, and learning, but as an aspiring art educator earning a Masters degree in arts education to provide knowledge, skills, and experience in design to educate my community,” says Gonzalez.
By 2015, when Blatchford assumed the position of Executive Director, the Foundation had grown exponentially. A reassessment was necessary to determine the Foundation’s future and ensure its projects still reflected Mitchell’s vision of sustaining artists more directly. The resolve was to commit to a long-term existence that would serve artists in more impactful ways. The nature of the Foundation’s outreach shifted, with renewed attention on artist grants and the construction of a residency center in New Orleans.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans in 2005, the Foundation’s then-board members chose to redirect funding and furnish $6000 relief grants to arts organizations and more than 80 Gulf Coast artists facing emergencies in the storm’s aftermath. Soon realizing that longer-term solutions were necessary in the city, the Foundation purchased the property that is now the Joan Mitchell Center in 2010. Before choosing the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, the Foundation had to determine a conscientious approach to establishing roots in the city, a very different venture from being a funder providing resources from afar. They needed to be accountable and engaged with the local community so the Center would be embedded, avoiding the cold, gentrifying approach common among real estate investors in post-Katrina New Orleans. The board also acknowledged that workspace is critical to an artist’s production and committed to building community in an urban environment. While construction on the building was underway, the Foundation started pilot residencies off-site in 2013, before officially opening two years later, in 2015.
Joan Mitchell Center welcomes both national artists, who are previous grant recipients, and local artists to residencies of up to five months, allowing them time and space to produce new work, to experiment, or to explore a project, while connecting with one another over community events and benefitting from a unique professional development program. The Center issues an annual open call, and artists are reviewed and selected every summer. Jurors are artists, curators, critics, and arts administrators invited by the Foundation staff based on research and outreach. Housing and meals are provided, and the only expectation is that artists go to their studios. In keeping with the Foundation’s commitment to nurturing the more pragmatic elements of an artist’s life, the residency’s professional development component is robust, providing instruction on how to approach galleries, curators, and other arts professionals, to career documentation, and promoting wellness and self-care. Artist and Residency Director Toccarra Thomas emphasizes that often “artists will get here and start to learn skills from other artists, and make a whole new body of work.” She notes the residency’s commitment to helping artists develop relationships through the organization of studio visits and meetings with curators and arts organizations, both locally and from all over the country. “Having relationships that last beyond the residency,” Thomas says, is part of the experience. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the residency increased its studio spaces by temporarily converting accommodations meant for national artists into small studios to be used only by New Orleans artists, and started using technology for virtual studio visits and programming in order to keep fostering connections with arts professionals, and resist isolation. Thomas affirms the artist exchange is crucial to the art residency: “When the local artists saw the national artists leave, they reiterated that part of what is important about this model is the ability to connect with artists who are not in New Orleans and to build their peer network.”
This kind of direct support to artists is very different from a cash grant, which offers a moment of stability and a step towards sustainability for an artist to create work. Mitchell herself was once supported by a traveling grant, an award she cherished, which gave her an entry into France where she eventually settled after living a trans-Atlantic life. Tomie Arai, an artist and former member of the Foundation’s board (2010–2019), was one of the first recipients of a Painters & Sculptors grant, which were given out to selected artists from 1994–2020. She remembers “artists were chosen by nomination by a circle of diverse professionals across the country as a way to reach a wider cross-section of communities” thus intentionally seeking to distribute wealth more equitably at a time when artists of color and women were not receiving enough support. The grantees were deemed deserving of greater recognition on a national level and were selected by an outside jury. Immediately she used the $10,000 grant to pay the rent on a studio and welcomed the encouragement earned for her work in a community of recognized peers while early in her career. Other past acclaimed grantees have included Jennifer Allora, Willie Birch, Katherine Bradford, Mark Bradford, Mel Chin, Simone Leigh, Glenn Ligon, Wangechi Mutu, Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Allison Saar, Amy Sherald, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson, among many others.
Shin asserts that “artists know what they need and want,” rendering an unrestricted grant a powerful form of support, not to mention a form of validation and an entrance into a larger network of former recipients that can offer wider exposure. Cindy Cheng received the award in 2018, which by then had increased in amount to $25,000, and used the money to expand her knowledge of materials by attending two workshops: first at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, learning ceramics and then at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee where she was introduced to papermaking. The grant was impactful as it not only allowed for an evolution in her work, but made inclusion in her first museum show possible with the group exhibition All Due Respect (November 14, 2021–April 3, 2022) at The Baltimore Museum of Art, which featured artists recognized by the Joan Mitchell Foundation that were also linked to the city of Baltimore in some way. This fall, she will be a national resident at the Joan Mitchell Center. Cheng concludes, “this foundation spotlights its artists such that once you are plugged into its network, it continues to give.”
The Foundation transitioned the long-standing Painters & Sculptors program, which bestowed grants to over 1000 artists over seventeen years, into a fellowship in 2021, in an effort to support artists over a longer period of time. The grant program now provides unrestricted funds of $60,000 distributed to fifteen artists over a five-year period in an effort to enhance stability and sustainability at a critical point in their work. “It’s important to understand the art world is more expansive than just painters and sculptors,” Arai offers, acknowledging the grant’s name needed a reassessment as well as to “adapt with the changing production of art and technological differences.” Every year, the Foundation invites around 100 artists and cultural workers to nominate up to two artists, which are then reviewed by a jury of five people consisting of artists, curators, critics, or arts administrators. Artist Justin Favela, one of the inaugural fellowship recipients, has “secured a bigger studio space and is relieved to have acquired this stability,” which means he can take more risks in his artistic practice without worrying about what job to support himself might turn up next. Similarly, recipient Angela Hennessy, an artist and professor at California College of the Arts, asserts, “at this point in my life, time is the most important thing to me. Time to make new work, time to rest, time to take care of myself, and my family. I have decided to use part of this grant to step back from teaching for a semester to focus on studio work.” The fellowship connects grantees with other artists in the Foundation’s network, mentors, and professional development workshops held virtually and in person, which the Foundation organizes in partnership with Creative Capital, a peer in the artist support realm. Artist Chie Fueki, another inaugural recipient, notes that the Foundation encourages dialogues, and as a result of her reaching out, she has received an invitation to teach at the Bard MFA program this summer. She says that this fellowship “has also been offering various workshops and presentations to help us to continue working as an artist in the future.” These interactive workshops, hosted by Creative Capital and attended by groups of 50-plus artists, include social media practices, archiving your artwork, and taxes for artists.
Unrestricted funding remains crucial to artists. Many grants come with strings attached, requiring recipients to submit final grant reports, itemize receipts, or donate artwork, reducing the effectiveness of support. Hennessy observes, “If you want to support us in making our work then don’t micromanage or give us unnecessary administrative paperwork. In general, submission processes could be way more streamlined.” The Joan Mitchell Foundation’s fellowship program adheres to this philosophy, acting as a patron and benefactor to artists by recognizing that though providing unrestricted funds directly to artists remains a radical form of support in the field of philanthropy, it is crucial to an artist’s freedom and ability to explore. The Foundation is also considering the unique challenges imposed upon today’s emerging artists. They would like to see more foundations collaborate with one another to address issues like school debt incurred through MFA programs, initiatives around universal basic income, and finding secure studio spaces or home ownership—all deterrents to risk taking for working artists.
In 2023, the Foundation will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Since its inception, Mitchell’s artwork has grown in renown and recognition, and thousands of artists at all stages of their lives have prospered thanks to artists grants, a residency, arts education initiatives, emergency relief, art organizational support, a giving artist network, and vital guidebooks on estate planning. Joan Mitchell often talked about painting through her letters to friends and in her notebooks, and once wrote that “painting is a way of forgetting oneself…I call that state ‘no-hands.’ I am in it. I am not there anymore.” Yet she remains present, not only through her work but through her generosity. Evidenced by the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s hands-on mission of supporting future generations of artists, Mitchell’s immortality and her love, continue to be felt in the living world.