Setting the Context. In the fall of 1999, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts launched an ambitious project in support of small contemporary visual arts organizations around the country. The “Warhol Initiative” offered local arts groups with strong visual art programs large grants of about a hundred thousand dollars each, along with consulting services to help them maximize the grants’ benefits. The venture’s goal was to help groups to gain a more stable financial footing and to improve their service to artists. With significant funds in the bank, recipients were able to undertake long-term financial planning and then embark on efforts to strengthen their future prospects. The arts groups began a variety of projects: improving their technological resources, financing long-deferred moves, creating cash reserves to allow for more efficient fiscal management. They worked with consultants on management issues, staff and board development, and strategies for increasing revenue. In order to support them in these efforts, the foundation sponsored biennial conferences at which the organizations’ directors and board chairs met their peers and participated in workshops and consultant-led training sessions. During the five years of the program, its grantees showed significant increases in organizational capacity, and most made strong progress towards greater financial stability.
Through the Initiative, the Warhol Foundation served thirty-one* contemporary visual arts organizations, helping them towards more secure futures in today’s difficult economic and cultural environment. This report describes the Initiative: how it came into being, was carried out, and – to the best of our understanding – what its impact has been on the organizations it served. It is the foundation’s hope that the report may assist and even inspire other similar efforts, whether in the arts or in other fields. Progressive, adventurous, forward-thinking groups like the program’s grantees are on the front lines of service to their constituencies, providing assistance where it is most needed. The Initiative’s work is critical for the future of the groups it serves; and they and others like them are essential to our nation’s cultural health and well-being. At five million dollars over five years, the Warhol Initiative has been, financially speaking, a relatively small venture, but it has been a successful and, we believe, an important one.
About the foundation. The Andy Warhol Foundation was created in 1987, upon the death of the great 20th century artist who was its founder. When Warhol died unexpectedly at the age of 58, he left his estate to create a foundation “dedicated to the advancement of the visual arts.” The interpretation of this broad directive became the task of the professional board formed to realize the founder’s vision. The board decided that although the foundation would give exclusively to arts organizations, Warhol the artist would be its guiding spirit, and the foundation’s grantmaking would be carried out with the needs and interests of the creative individual always foremost.
For the foundation’s directors and staff, that meant that small to moderate sized contemporary visual arts organizations would be at the heart of its mission and activities. They saw that “artist-centered” groups are the ones at work supporting artists on the ground in local communities. Often more regional than national in their orientation, these groups keep in close touch with the artists in their communities, discovering them, presenting them, providing them with many essential supports, from professional development services to first critical assessments. The organizations become gathering places for artists, exhibit work that inspires them, connect them with other artists and with audiences. In short, in carrying out their mission of presenting contemporary art, they are also, essentially, artist service organizations, and end up as the source of much of the support that is available to American artists.
Unfortunately, however, these kinds of small non-profits are among the most endangered of American arts organizations. Many were founded during an era of more generous government funding (a significant number in the ‘70s and 80s, when public funding for the arts was at its peak); with these sources in steep decline, and private funding also increasingly difficult to obtain, many groups have struggled to survive – and not all have succeeded. Often guided by either explicit or implicit progressive political agendas, many have also run afoul of today’s polarized cultural environment.
By 1999, Warhol’s staff and board had been following these organizations closely for over a decade. The foundation’s grant program had of course been serving them since its inception, but it offered “project grants,” funds directed towards particular, discrete programming events, not general operating support. The more the foundation studied its constituency of small contemporary arts organizations, the more it realized that a different kind of help was also needed. In 1998, the foundation commissioned LarsonAllen, a non-profit consultancy based in Minneapolis, to conduct a study of small to midsized visual arts organizations, their sources of funding and the outlook for their survival. To no one’s surprise, the results showed a chronic shortage of resources for these groups, and a particularly dramatic drop-off in available money in the wake of the culture wars of the 1990s and resultant changes in the National Endowment for the Arts. After much discussion of the difficulties both the study and its own experience confirmed, the foundation’s board asked its staff to articulate a new program that would address in a comprehensive manner the issues facing these contemporary arts groups. And so the Initiative was born.
– Excerpt from the introductory essay of The Warhol Initiative, published in 2005.
*By 2011, the Initiative had served a total of 74 organizations and arts journals.