Sunsetting at the Lichtenstein Foundation: Gifts to the World!

Sunrise [Lever de soleil], 1965, Roy Lichtenstein / Gautier Poupeau

June 6, 2018; New York Times

Shortly after the death of Pop Art icon Roy Lichtenstein in 1997, a private foundation was established in his name, with a primary goal of facilitating public access to his work. Projects included the long-term (and still ongoing) creation of a catalogue raisonné of Lichtenstein’s career, which spanned the second half of the 20th century. The New York-based Roy Lichtenstein Foundation also has loaned works from its extensive collection to exhibitions around the world. Now, with one bold brushstroke, the leaders of the foundation have signaled a new phase in fulfilling their mission, one that could eventually lead to sunsetting the organization.

On June 1, the foundation announced “the launch of two comprehensive, long-term collaborations.” Roughly half of the Lichtenstein artworks held by the foundation will go to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; all of its archival materials—about half a million documents, which will be digitized over the next several years—will go to the Archives of American Art (AAA), a Smithsonian Institution research center based in Washington, D.C. The news release on the foundation website noted that these significant contributions were initiated by the foundation and have been approved by the boards of all three organizations. The foundation leaders also stated that over time, additional, smaller gifts of artworks will be made to other institutions.

Dorothy Lichtenstein, the artist’s widow and president of the foundation, had this to say:

We feel privileged that all departments of the Whitney Museum and the Archives of American Art are so enthusiastic and have embraced our initial ideas. We have always intended that the Foundation, now almost twenty years old, would not operate in perpetuity and are delighted we can create a new way forward with our first set of chosen successor institutions, well before we “sunset.” We will continue to refine and expand these projects and facilitate research opportunities. Furthermore, it is our long-range hope that Roy’s Washington Street studio would go to the Whitney as a venue for its extensive artistic and scholarly programming. We will be delighted if this proves to be a useful model for other artists and artists’ foundations, estates or trusts.

As noted in The Art Newspaper, until now, the foundation has fulfilled its mission through publishing projects and by lending works to exhibitions. Foundation executive director and art historian Jack Cowart noted, “Parting with works to go to art museums who can put them on their walls more normally seems like the more progressive idea, and we felt it was time to start doing that.” He also told The Art Newspaper that the foundation still has a lot of work to do—the archive project with AAA, finding public homes for the remaining artwork, and publishing the catalogue raisonné; but after that, he suggested, perhaps in the 2020s, the foundation might close or could downsize “to a single management desk.” He added, “We’ll stop when were finished doing what we want to do.”

Even if the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation continues to operate for the foreseeable future, its approach to handing off its collection in a way that stays true to its mission is worth noting and may offer a way forward for similar private foundations dedicated to the works of artists. The New York Times article by Ted Loos cited Christine J. Vincent, who studies artist-endowed foundations for the Aspen Institute, in observing that for this type of a foundation, “estate distribution is their mission.” She added, “The interesting thing about the Lichtenstein Foundation has been their heroic and imaginative efforts to give to networks and consortia around the globe. That ensures the work will be accessible to the public.”

The Times article also quoted Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College as well as a board member of the Keith Haring Foundation, who noted that leaders of other artist-focused foundations are wrestling with similar questions about their mission and their longevity. “It’s a predicament in the art world right now,” he said. “The Lichtenstein gift will be one of these banner trials.”—Eileen Cunniffe