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Contemporary Art

A Champion of Artists: Christy MacLear Joins Sotheby’s

Artists are revered by collectors, and for good reason – they are the gifted individuals who create the paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and other objects that have defined civilization over the ages. But what happens when artists and collectors are one and the same? Artists are often the single most important collectors of their own works. And, when artists die, the disposition of their estates can be especially complicated. It took years, for example, to sort out the holdings of Pablo Picasso, one of the most prolific and sought-after artists of all time; when he died at age 91 in 1973, he owned some 45,000 thousands of his own works, which were dispersed to heirs and museums, involving a dizzying mix of lawyers, government officials, art historians, dealers and, of course, family members. Once an artist’s works are distributed, guarding and advancing his or her legacy for future generations can be an even more important and daunting undertaking. To this day, the Picasso Administration fields thousands of requests every year to authenticate the master’s works and grant reproduction rights, and it is called upon to help with decisions large and small concerning museums exhibitions, publications, scholarship and media projects.

Many of the issues surrounding the Picasso estate – and other high-profile examples, like those of Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko – are shared by countless other artists, many of whom to not have the tools they need to plan appropriately. In response, Sotheby’s is broadening its services specifically to address the needs of artists, their estates and the foundations that are formed in order to guard and promote their legacies. To lead this effort, Sotheby’s has just announced that Christy MacLear, the founding CEO of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and former Executive Director of the Philip Johnson Glass House, will join its ranks. “Artists need professional services to help them plan their foundations and assist in the transition of the estate,” she says. “Having a financial and organizational plan in advance helps optimize an artist’s legacy.”

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MACLEAR WAS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF PHILIP JOHNSON’S GLASS HOUSE IN NEW CANAAN, CONNECTICUT FROM 2005-2010.

MacLear brings a remarkable range of experiences to this new assignment. A degree in Urban Design & Architectural History from Stanford University and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania armed her with the business chops to develop a strategic framework through which to tackle complex problems in the cultural realm. Early in her career, she joined the team at the Walt Disney Development Corporation that built an innovative new town, Celebration; she then consulted with the leadership of the Cleveland Clinic, the nonprofit, academic medical center that also runs an innovative arts program. MacLear also served as Director of the Museum Campus in Chicago, managing the creation of a lakefront park that surrounds the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History.

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MACLEAR (RIGHT) WITH FRANCINE SNYDER, DIRECTOR OF ARCHIVES & SCHOLARSHIP, IN THE ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION WAREHOUSE OUTSIDE OF NEW YORK CITY. PHOTOGRAPHED BY NICHOLAS CALCOTT FOR “ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG’S ENDLESS COMBINATIONS” IN T MAGAZINE.

In 2005, MacLear took on the helm of the Philip Johnson Glass House, where she developed the mission, vision and strategy for the architectural landmark that became a house museum and a center for ideas and thinking about design in general. In 2010, she left that post to build the foundation of Robert Rauschenberg, one of the titans of Contemporary art, who had died two years before. As the inaugural CEO of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, MacLear again defined the strategy and vision for a new organization, worked through the thorny issues surrounding the transition of assets from the estate to the foundation, and implemented a striking array of innovative programs in art and scholarship, created a philanthropy program guided by Rauschenberg’s philosophy and practices, and developed an artist residency on Rauschenberg’s compound on Captiva Island, Florida.

The recent opening of Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, London – the first major retrospective devoted to the artist since his death – is a crowning achievement, signaling the appropriate moment for MacLear to leave the Foundation and pivot to a new chapter in her career. At Sotheby’s, she is looking forward to putting her experience at the service of living artists who are considering their legacies. We asked MacLear a few questions about her career to date and her initial plans in this new position.


Philip Johnson and Robert Rauschenberg were giant figures in 20th-century art, and heading up their foundations must have led to amazing experiences for you. What are some memorable stories from these jobs?

One of my favorite memories from the Glass House came during the early days, when my office was in what had been the bedroom of David Whitney [Philip Johnson’s partner, a collector who died in 2005]. In one of David’s shoe boxes, I discovered hundreds of postcards, each from an artist or architect friend of David and Phillip – they were from Andy Warhol, Frank Gehry, Brice Marden, Andrew Lord, on and on. It was a living version of art history through the lens of friendship, and I was so glad to have it in the archives now for future scholars and friends.

For the Rauschenberg Foundation, my most interesting experience was the opportunity to put a 1998 Rauschenberg, Early Bloomer [Anagram (A Pun)], in the White House. This placement took years but I’m proud that we were a part of a larger effort to bring art of the 20th century into the White House’s public rooms.

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MACLEAR WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN PLACING ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG’S EARLY BLOOMER [ANAGRAM (A PUN)] (ABOVE LEFT) IN THE OLD FAMILY DINING ROOM AT THE WHITE HOUSE. PHOTO BY MICHAEL MUNDY FOR ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST.

The first posthumous Robert Rauschenberg retrospective has just opened at the Tate to sensational reviews, and will travel to MoMA and SFMoMA in 2017. What was your role in organizing the show, and what do you think it reveals about his career?

My role, as the leader of the artist's Foundation, was to support the exhibition curators any way we could: through loans of artwork from the Foundation, grant-making for educational programs, opening up archives, and helping with press coverage. It also gave us the opportunity to launch new programs, license products, reconsider our broader market strategy and the launch the Rauschenberg catalogue raisonné.

In my view, the show revealed two key aspects about Rauschenberg’s career: the integration of performance into the exhibition illustrated the diversity of his artistic practice, and the show also increased our understanding of her later work, which is so powerful and relevant.

How will your experience at the Rauschenberg Foundation inform your work at Sotheby’s?

Helping other artists is something the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation board and I have always believed in – it was a part of Rauschenberg’s own legacy. That has to be started separately from the Foundation, so I’m glad to have their support to help others.  

At Sotheby’s, you will be advising artists and their foundations about their collections and their legacies. What are some of the issues that artists should be especially concerned about?

Artists should be concerned about creating a clear vision and plan for their estate, identifying a well-rounded composition of stewards for their assets (professionals as well as friends and studio managers), and setting thresholds for estate trustee fees. It’s best for artists to plan their estates and foundations during their lifetimes – history surprises us with stories about how family or friends translate intent unexpectedly or avarice creeps in. Finally, as artists often have more art and real estate assets than cash, having a prioritized plan so the creation of a balanced financial reserve will steer clear of the long-range use and plan for the artists own work. Sothebys will be a great partner for artists, lawyers and even galleries to help think through these important questions and plan accordingly.

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