Established in 1993 to increase recognition of the work and life of pioneering abstract painter Joan Mitchell, the foundation is grounded in Mitchell’s desire to support the aspirations of visual artists through grantmaking, programming, and collaborations. With their 25th anniversary just around the corner, the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s CEO and Program Team were invited to reflect on what it means to “cultivate a lifetime of creativity,” and how they’ve seen this mission play out in the course of their work. Each contributor shared his or her experience, culminating in a collective meditation on the Foundation’s core values of artist focus, diversity, responsiveness, comprehensiveness, and sustainability.
Christa Blatchford, Chief Executive Officer: Joan Mitchell was explicit about her intention that the Foundation’s work support artists directly – not simply the arts. We have seen this wish as a real opportunity to work deeply and broadly with artists over the course of their lifetimes. We also recognize that to be truly artist-centered, we need to have sustained relationships with artists and approach those relationships as an ongoing opportunity for us to understand more deeply what cultivates a lifetime of creativity.
Gia Hamilton, Director of the Joan Mitchell Center: There are so many stories of how artists connect to community members and to each other at the Joan Mitchell Center [in New Orleans], but I think one story that stands out for me right now is that of William Cordova. He is a Miami-based artist who came to the Center for the first time as an artist-in-residence, and really wanted to understand the culture at the Center. Through our orientation process we shared details about the neighborhood and city, which are a part of a history that is not as visible, a “hidden history” as Dr. Leon Waters has put it. William connected with this history and built dialogues with colleagues like Adriana Farmiga, Nyame Brown, and Asuka Goto around social equity and the artists’ work. A few weeks after his residency ended, I learned that William intended to curate a show for Miami Art Week, so I connected him with my colleague, Mikhaile Solomon, founder of Prizm Art Fair. William ended up curating an exhibition within Prizm, titled, “Indivisible: Spirits in the Material World,” in which he will include the work of nine Joan Mitchell Center artists.
This epitomizes the long-lasting connections made by artists of all creeds, colors, and backgrounds who are committed to supporting each others’ personal development, and choose to leverage their own access and visibility to provide a platform for other artists. This example is one of many ways that we cultivate connections at the Center through the work for the Foundation. We believe this strategy not only encourages long-term growth, development, and relationships with the artists we work with, but it also models best practices in the field.
Travis Laughlin, Senior Director of Programs: When reflecting upon the idea of cultivating a lifetime of creativity, I think about the points in an artist’s life and career when they meet barriers. The Foundation is invested in creating spaces to overcome these barriers. This looks very different from person to person, and at varying points in the lives of individual artists.
There are even times that barrier removal may not have been the anticipated outcome of the artist involved. Specifically, I am reminded of an artist who came to the Foundation to apply for a position as an Artist-Teacher. This artist had stopped creating – the necessity of paying rent and eating had totally erased his artistic practice. He was working a variety of jobs in restaurants, and saw the opportunity to teach as a way to supplement his income and, perhaps, allow him to quit at least one non-fulfilling job. Through his work in our Art Education Program, this artist found himself again – he experienced the classroom as a place of experimentation and exploration, he connected with a community of artists that supported his personal and professional growth, and he inspired young people to explore their passions and desire to be artists.
This artist now makes his living as an artist. Was there a way to guarantee that working with youth and working in arts education would provide him the chance to reconnect to his practice? No…and yet without providing this entry point there is no opportunity for the catalyst experience. The work done at the Joan Mitchell Foundation is an effort to find the entry points and aspects of support and connectivity to ensure that artists can thrive and survive.
José Ortiz, Artist Programs Manager, Young Artist Initiatives: Over the years the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Student Opportunities and Support Program has provided group and individual support to young participants who have expressed an interest in expanding their personal development as artists. This has taken place through a myriad of programming initiatives: one-on-one counseling, college tours, portfolio intensives, career fairs, and more.
One of the unifying qualities of our students is their openness and bravery in taking on the challenge of developing their portfolio and exploring creative possibilities for their careers, but not committing themselves to a single outcome. In many cases, while our alumni have taken on the rigor of developing a portfolio and exploring different careers in the arts, they ultimately decide to pursue other interests. However, this doesn’t mean they abandon their creativity, but instead use that creativity as a tool, and adapt their skills to their new endeavors as they move forward.
One student that comes to mind is an alumnus named Dennis. He started with us when he was in middle school, and continued his commitment to his artistic practice through high school. During his time with us, Dennis took full advantage of all the creative opportunities made available at the Foundation and at other art education programs. As his senior year loomed closer, he started seeking out as many opportunities as he could to meet with art colleges, and actively sought feedback that would allow him an opportunity to gain acceptance into one of these programs. This intense focus garnered him acceptance to a number of art schools, but ultimately, through lots of personal reflection and in consultation with his family, friends, and advocates at the Foundation, Dennis made the decision to pursue a degree in business and finance. He went to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania for his undergraduate education, and at first struggled with the decision to end his pursuit of a career in the creative arts. This struggle set him on the new mission of marrying his creative needs with his new focus on other professional pursuits.
We kept in touch through his four years of college, and he returned to the Joan Mitchell Foundation to participate in an internship, as well as support other developing artists. During his summer with us in the administrative office, he took the opportunity to arrange meetings with our finance officer to learn more about how our artist-endowed nonprofit functioned. The following summer he interned at Sotheby’s auction house, followed by experiences at investment banks and equity trading companies. He is now an accounting and training assistant at an investment management company. As for the status of Dennis’ creativity, he shared the following response to the question “what role does creativity play in your life now?”
I don’t practice creativity in the artistic sense in my day-to-day job. But it requires other types of creative intelligences, i.e., logical and mathematical creativity, using numbers as a way of looking at things. I find that logical reasoning has the power to unleash creativity. If a problem was presented as a chain and at one end was the solution, the process would be to quantify/assign a number to each link in the chain…This helps me think clearly/spatially and make connections among them. Creativity is involved when searching for a more efficient/direct path along the chain. Outside of work, I continue to sketch on my free-time and regularly attend galleries to find inspiration for my drawings.
In Dennis’ case, and many others, we find that early artistic and creative development lead to a lifetime infused with the indispensable skills of creative thinking, and aspire to even further push our programs to serve artists at all ages in pursuing a lifetime of creativity.
Sharbreon Plummer, Program Associate for Community Engagement, Joan Mitchell Center: Creativity presents itself in innumerable ways throughout a single lifetime: from a curious child exploring the world through fresh eyes, to an elder dedicated to the continued mastery of their craft. Its sustainability relies upon one’s ability to freely explore their personal definition of creativity, along with the support of a community that honors that spectrum. I view my colleagues and myself as members of that community; one which, through empathy, lived experience, and love of our field, wish to understand what it takes to create and maintain the journey of self-exploration through artistic practice. Our artists are non-homogenous, and thus our approach to the cultivation of creativity continues to be a reflection of them.
When assessing the needs of our Artists-in-Residence, the acknowledgment of each artist’s humanity and personhood comes first; leading with listening and with the intent to understand how their stories contribute to the creation of the temporary communities that we seek to nurture, and see thrive beyond our gates. As a society, we often see the success and achievements of artists with no understanding of the journey that precedes the summit. I’ve seen firsthand the ways that time and space to recharge, while feeling valued and heard, can serve as a pivotal experience for creators who feel consumed, overworked, and overwhelmed. Beyond the provision of resources, we seek to remind artists that caring for one’s full self is supplementary to further development of a creative practice and a necessary act.
Shervone Neckles-Ortiz, Artist Support Manager, Professional Development: Our direct work and relationships with our community has put the program team in a unique position to reimagine and shift the relationship between the Foundation and its recipients, to one that reflects the central role we envision artists playing in society. There is a tremendous opportunity for both the Foundation and our recipient community to work together to learn, inform and improve the overall quality of life for artists, the professionals that support them, and possibly influence larger system-level issues. Establishing a partnership with our recipients that is built on shared interest, trust, and a mutual respect is our aim. It is our ambition to foster a culture of cooperative learning and collaboration which also has the potential to reverberate within and beyond the field.
The Foundation has a history of working very deeply with artists of all ages, from youth to senior practitioners. As a member of the program team, I feel privileged to bear witness to the significance and power of the intergenerational and peer-to-peer exchange that has become the heart and soul of the work we do in art education, career documentation/development, legacy planning, and community building.
There is endless possibility when artists are given the space to work together and to cross-pollinate with others in non-art sectors. From our fieldwork, it has become apparent that the artist voice must remain central and constant at all stages of decision-making at the Foundation: from the visioning and implementation to the assessment. With that understanding, artists are embedded into the overall makeup of the Foundation. Currently, artists participate in and support the Foundation in a number of ways: as board and staff members; as nominators, jurors and advisors for our grants and granting processes; and as artist-teachers, guest lecturers and workshop facilitators. Artists, in one role or another, touch every element of the work we do at the Foundation.
An ideal example of the Foundation’s multi-dimensional, interdisciplinary-learning and intergenerational-social investigations can be seen in our CALL Program collaboration with artist Jaime Davidovich.
In 2013, Alison Owen and Joseph Gonzalez received training in the Creating A Living Legacy (CALL) Program, an initiative the Foundation developed in 2007 to assist mature artists in documenting, organizing, and preserving their life’s work. Alison (an Artist-Teacher and emerging artist) was trained as a Legacy Specialist, and Joseph (an Art Education Program alum and recent FIT college graduate) was trained as a CALL Apprentice, both building a base of knowledge in the areas specific to studio organization, inventory management, and archiving. Following the training, Alison and Joseph were assigned to CALL Artist Jaime Davidovich, and charged with providing logistical and managerial assistance in the career documentation process. Unfortunately Jaime passed away in August of 2016, which makes the work he was able to do with Alison and Joseph all the more timely and urgent.
The three artists worked together in 6 to 8 hours sessions once a week for 12 months, reflecting, questioning, experimenting, and problem solving. To complement the in-studio work, team members met periodically with their own cohorts (CALL Artists, Legacy Specialists, and CALL Apprentices) to brainstorm, discuss achievements/challenges and plan for the next phase of work. The interwoven layer of gatherings and group work proved to have a cumulative effect. The gatherings validated and empowered each team member to increase their productivity with the assigned program tasks and apply those same skills to their own personal lives and studio practice. CALL Apprentice Joseph Gonzalez described his experience as follows:
Working with Jaime and Alison was a rewarding experience, it gave me the opportunity to learn the importance of planning ahead, which wasn’t something I did in my own work. We developed a workflow that allowed us to be more efficient, effective, and precise. This way of working has influenced my own practice, I’m now more mindful of my process and document the work as I make it.
Legacy Specialist Alison Owen was also transformed by the experience:
Jaime was wonderful to work with because he was a very gentle teacher, never setting himself up to be the authority and yet also managing to be instructive, wise, and compassionate. I learned so much from him: how to manage an art career, how to remain committed to an art practice over the course of a lifetime. And I was able to teach Joseph the things that I have learned so far in my own practice, and model the type of collaborative work that’s important to me. Joseph had skills that he had learned recently in school (particularly digital skills) that were invaluable to us as we archived the work. The three of us worked together in a very fluid and comfortable way, and I think we all learned from each other.
There is so much rich history to be learned from an artist’s archive – a unique perspective that often times remain unknown and even discounted in history-defining conversations. From organizing and inventorying the CALL Artists’ artwork and personal papers we’ve discovered how much of their life’s work serves as the evidence of their human activity, their witnessing, and ultimately their belonging.
In 2015, the Foundation saw a need to extend the conversation beyond the studio to also include public programs. The Foundation formed a partnership with Voices in Contemporary Art (VoCA) to capture the complexities and nuanced stories of these pioneering artists. Through these recorded public conversations the CALL Artists are able to author and shares their historical narrative.
It has been an honor to work with artists such as Jaime Davidovich, Betty Blayton Taylor, Arlan Huang, Mimi Smith, Juan Sanchez, Blane De St Croix, Henrietta Mantooth, Emmett Wigglesworth, and Otto Neals, whose work counters and interrogates the world in complicated, meaningful, and diverse ways. It feels incredibly important to us that the artist’s voice and contributions, particularly artists from marginalized communities, be fully acknowledged – past, present and future.
The very nature of cultivating a lifetime of creativity is in itself complex. There is no single way to thrive and live a fulfilling life as an artist. In the foreword to “Communities Creating Health”, Sir Harry Burns offers:
We are well when we feel we have a sense of mastery over our lives, when our lives have meaning and purpose, and when we’re part of a community that can support us in times of difficulty. The way we organize society, and look after and support each other creates the capacity for well being within individuals. Failure to provide nurturing and supportive environments has psychological and biological consequences that increase risk of ill health and premature death.1
The 2003 report by the Urban Institute, “Investing in Creativity,” and the most recent “Creativity Connects” study by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Center for Cultural Innovation both confirm the intrinsic role community plays in building and sustaining a career as an artist. The lessons we’ve gathered from our programs and fieldwork has provoked the Foundation to consider new ways of thinking about our relationship with recipients and the recipients’ own relationship to one another. Leveraging the body of knowledge, resources, and abilities within the community help us to make the micro and macro system-level changes artists value most.
For more information on the CALL/VoCA Talks series: http://www.voca.network/programs/voca-talks/
1 Tamber, Pritpal S., Bridget B. Kelly, Leigh Carroll, Jenifer Morgan eds. , and Sir Harry Burns, Communities Creating Health: What would happen if the design, implementation, and evaluation of health interventions became something we do with communities rather than to them? (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2015).
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), Champs, 1990, oil on canvas, diptych, 110.25 x 141.75 in.
© Estate of Joan Mitchell