Cai Guo-Qiang’s art donations have raised large sums for younger artists – and for earthquake victims.

NEW YORK - Artists have always occupied the role of society’s critics. There is a rich history of artists – subtly and otherwise – advocating for change. Think Picasso’s Guernica, or Diego Rivera’s mural with an image of Lenin, erased from the walls of Rockefeller Center. In recent years, though, with many contemporary painters, sculptors and photographers accumulating substantial wealth, a growing and influential class of artist philanthropists has arisen. Many have coupled their impulse for social engagement with giving.

The extent of artists’ charitable endeavours runs the gamut from donating works, to be auctioned off at gala events for all manner of non-profit organisations, to establishing foundations that dole out grants to arts or educational groups. Venerable British-born artist David Hockney topped the Sunday Times Giving List of the UK’s most generous philanthropists this year, thanks to his donation of paintings valued at £78.1 million ($124.2 million) to his own foundation, reportedly to be dispersed eventually to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Tate Gallery in London. Other artists have embraced causes far removed from the art world: Tracey Emin built a school library in Uganda; Maya Lin started a foundation to raise awareness of environmental destruction; and Olafur Eliasson has helped fund Ethiopian orphanages.

When Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese artist famed for using gunpowder in his drawings and “explosion events,” first came to the U.S. 17 years ago, it was thanks to a grant from the Asian Cultural Council, and now he is in a position to reciprocate. “Many artists now have the means to return the favour to society,” he says through a translator. Cai recently donated his drawing Marx’s Moustache to the Asian Cultural Council, which sold the work at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October for HK$1.46 million (US$188,296) to create the ACC Cai Fellowship Program, enabling two emerging Chinese artists to travel to the U.S. on six-month fellowships.

Much of Cai’s philanthropy focuses on major societal problems or upheavals. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, Cai was instrumental in organising an auction in Beijing, recruiting other Chinese artists to contribute works. The benefit raised nearly half a million dollars. Damien Hirst similarly rallied his fellow artists in 2008 for a mega auction at Sotheby’s to raise money for Bono’s RED charity fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa. The sale took in $42.58 million, nearly half of it from seven Hirst works.

Jasper Johns, one of the donors to the RED auction, helped invent the now-ubiquitous art benefit auction 50 years ago, when he joined with Robert Rauschenberg and composer John Cage to raise money for choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance company. The friends’ plan to sell artworks went off so well that the following year Johns and Cage created the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, which gives unrestricted grants to individuals as well as organisations across the arts. In 2010, according to its tax return, FCA distributed about $500,000. Pre-dating even the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, FCA awarded some of its earliest grants to choreographer Trisha Brown and composer Philip Glass. Johns remains its president.

Younger artists have taken up the cause as well. Guillermo Kuitca founded the Studio Program for the Visual Arts in Buenos Aires more than 20 years ago. Colloquially known as the Kuitca Fellowship, it has provided approximately 130 artists with studio space and mentorship.

Kuitca, a painter known for his haunting renderings of maps and blueprints, started the fellowship as a way to stay connected to his hometown and country as he ceased exhibiting in Argentina and became a part of the global art community. Showing regularly in New York and Europe, he “had an intuition there was going to be a gap. I know now – I don’t know if I knew then – it was my way to be an artist here,” he says of Buenos Aires, where he still lives. “It was a merger of philosophical and personal needs — I guess the two always go together.”

A supporter of emerging artists in Argentina, Guillermo Kuitca is also a dedicated teacher and mentor.

His original plan was to run the programme through the local art school, but the academy downplayed contemporary art to the point of neglect, and Kuitca decided the fellowship should be independent. The magical component is Kuitca’s role. Far more than patron, he serves as personal tutor to the 20 or so artists chosen from roughly 500 applicants. (The fellowship has no stipulations regarding an applicant’s age or nationality, though most are young and Argentine).
For 18 months straight Kuitca meets twice a week with his students, spending one day in individual sessions and another with the group as a whole. “There’s a lot of one-on-one conversation,” he says. “There’s an energy and a communication that flows in different ways.”
Kuitca, though, is not satisfied. His next effort, still in development, will move beyond the studio and take artists to Argentina’s slums or hospitals as “agents of change.” “I can do more and have to do more,” he says.

Other artists are also refusing to limit their causes to the arts. Maya Lin, who shot to fame at the age of 21 when she won a design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and has since won acclaim for both her art and her architecture, has long devoted her energies to environmental issues. She says, in fact, that preserving the natural world was her first love.

“I was more interested in the environment than I was in art or architecture,” she says, noting that she originally intended to study animal behavior at Yale. “I was out petitioning to save the whales when I was a kid.”

Lin served on the boards of the Energy Foundation and then the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she is now an honourary member, before setting up her own foundation, What Is Missing?, which she calls her “final memorial.” The thrust is the loss of species due to the destruction of habitats. “We’re very short-sighted,” Lin says. “We need to think this out three or four generations out.”

Lin’s foundation is a kind of art-activist hybrid. There is a sculptural element, which was installed at the California Academy of Sciences in 2009, but Lin says it is not meant to be stationary. There is also an extensive series of educational videos, each just a minute or two long. Finally, there is a web site,, which charts both successes and failures in the fight to safeguard the environment. Readers are encouraged to share a memory of the natural world that has since been lost; it could be as simple as the birds singing in the backyard 30 years ago. “Part of it is just to wake people up,” Lin says.

Though Lin describes her art as “fairly pure” and not propaganda, she acknowledges that it calls attention to the world, much the way she says 19th-century landscape painters did. Her Confluence Project, for example, an ongoing, collaborative work that considers both the Lewis and Clark expedition and the indigenous peoples that preceded it in the Pacific Northwest, has instilled awareness of how the region’s ecosystem has changed. But while her art normally allows viewers to form their own conclusions, What Is Missing “advocates for action.” “There’s a part of me that has stepped into that world,” she admits.

For Olafur Eliasson, Ethiopian orphans are a very personal cause.

Lin is not alone. Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist known for his massive installations such as The Weather Project in London and Waterfalls in New York, created 121Ethiopia to aid orphanages in Ethiopia, where he and his wife adopted their children. He also co-founded Little Sun, a for-profit company that sells solar-powered lamps at full price in the developed world and uses the proceeds to subsidize distribution in places with no or unreliable electricity.

Tracey Emin, the oft-controversial British artist, similarly found herself wrapped up in the plight of Africans and ended up building a library for the New Forest School in Central Uganda. “My library in Uganda will change the lives of thousands of young women,” she says by email. “I paid for it to be built. It’s really sweet. I supply all the books, computers, and electricity with solar panels. I don’t talk about it much.”

Tracey Emin’s donations help bring literacy to Uganda.

For artists of a certain age, creating namesake foundations has become a standard way to plan for their legacies. For some, philanthropy is a strong part of the equation. Ellsworth Kelly established his in 1991. “Ellsworth tends to be a very generous person,” says Jack Shear, the foundation’s treasurer/secretary. “He’s very, very old school.”

Kelly’s foundation targets half its annual grants, which range from $25,000 to $250,000 each, to causes in rural Columbia County in upstate New York, where the artist has lived and worked for more than 40 years. “We’re very concerned about the part of the country we live in,” says Shear, adding that their philosophy is to think globally, act locally. Among Kelly’s favourite recipients are the county’s six school districts, which are free to use the money as they see fit, whether for art supplies or dance troupes. “People can actually see concrete, very specific work being done in schools,” Shear says. “We want it to augment what schools can’t do.”

The other half of Kelly’s annual grants go to art and architecture conservation programs at the World Monuments Fund, MIT, the Pompidou and the Dallas Art Museum, among other institutions.
Rauschenberg, a contemporary of Kelly’s who died in 2008, also formed his foundation in the 1990s. “He used to say that everything exists between art and life,” says Christy MacLear, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s executive director, “and he also used to say that art can change the world.”

An important philanthropist during his lifetime, Rauschenberg worked out a plan to exchange art for hospital services for uninsured artists; contributed his services to causes he believed in, from Earth Day to combating AIDS; and used his royalties to provide emergency funds for artists. In death he continues to support efforts that the board believes represent values he held dear, such as risk-taking, innovation and collaboration, while always being forward-thinking. MacLear says the board continually asks, “What would Bob have done?”

Fortunately, the board has an abundance of evidence to consider. Perhaps most indicative of his mindset is the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, which he created in 1984 and for which he traversed the globe as a kind of ambassador for art. R.O.C.I. took him from Mexico and Chile to Tibet and the Soviet Union in the hopes of fostering communication through art. Over the course of seven years he immersed himself in each culture, collaborated with local artists and used native materials to make art. At the end of each project, he held a public exhibition and donated a work to the people of that country.

Robert Rauschenberg’s lifetime of generosity, exemplified by the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange (a project in China is shown above), continues through the artist’s foundation.

Today his foundation provides seed grants to some of the smallest, grassroots arts organizations in the U.S. as well as more substantial funding – up to $150,000 a year – to mid-size groups. True to Rauschenberg’s spirit, the board is also open to any worthy, if offbeat, proposal. “We just fund them if we like them,” MacLear says. “We don’t want to have any constraints, and we listen to what is really creative.”

Making use of Rauschenberg’s extensive 26-acre compound on Captiva Island, off the coast of Florida, the foundation is launching a residency program this November. Each of nine dancers, poets, writers or visual artists – the pilot group includes Jack Pierson, Maria Elena Gonzalez, Will Cotton and Tim Hodges – will be given a home and studio for four weeks.

The foundation’s mandate is enticingly broad, says MacLear, open to everything except religion and politics, so the opportunities to make a difference are almost endless.

“As an artist you receive so much from everyone else,” says Cai. “Times have changed. Now, it’s not society owing artists, it’s artists owing society.” And it’s refreshing to see so many artists make good on their debts.

Julie L. Belcove writes about art and culture. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Architectural Digest, Elle, Town & Country and the Financial Times, amongst other publications.

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