In fall 2013, after a long career in the museum field, I joined the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation as its first Executive Director. Now, on my three-year anniversary in this role, I was pleased to be invited by VoCA Journal to reflect on what the Foundation has achieved during its early years and how we plan to maintain our momentum as we move forward.
The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation was established by artist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) in the 1980s, to become fully functioning after her death as the primary beneficiary of her estate. She also identified a Board of Trustees with the responsibility of ensuring that her artworks, collection of works by other artists, archives and papers, copyright, and financial assets would be properly stewarded as an artist-endowed foundation, with a broad mission to support the arts in a manner to be determined by the Foundation. Consisting of family members and long-time associates of the artist, this Board, with which I work closely, formed the search committee responsible for my hire.
In the three years since the estate was closed and its assets passed to the Foundation, it has been my great privilege to chart a course for the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. During this time, we laid the groundwork for and proceeded with a level of activity centering on care of Frankenthaler’s artwork and our stewardship of her legacy through educational and philanthropic activity. With a staff now numbering six, we have established both physical and online presences and built an infrastructure for collections care and exhibitions, research and publishing, educational programming, and grant making. We have also begun to shape an identity for the Foundation, informed by how best to extend the artist’s legacy. Defining this identity going forward will have much to do with how we continue to carry out our mission to support the arts while honoring the spirit of Helen Frankenthaler’s life and work.
Among our most important achievements to date has been acquiring and renovating a space for the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s permanent home, which encompasses offices, a study center, and a conference and event space. We have now been in place for a year-and-a-half and have begun to welcome scholars and researchers, museum curators and directors, artists, students, and foundation colleagues for programs ranging from lectures, panel discussions, and seminars to more informal gatherings, often including a focus on materials drawn from our archives.
The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, as a centerpiece of our organization, was the subject of a brief article I wrote for the October 2015 issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Familiarizing myself with the scope of the holdings early in my tenure, it became apparent that the Foundation possesses significant research resources. Keeping these materials close at hand for our own needs, and dedicating staff specifically to their care to make them available to scholars and researchers, became clear priorities as the Foundation’s Board and staff conceptualized its program. Already, certain of these holdings are being consulted by scholars, even while others are still being processed by our staff.
In 2015, once plans for our physical home were underway, we developed and launched a website to create an online presence for the Foundation and for information pertaining to Frankenthaler’s life and work. This website, which we continue to refine and update, has also become an important resource. Likewise, we have begun to use social media to amplify our reach, and have found it to be a significant way to provide information to a wide audience.
Alongside the Foundation’s growing roster of programmatic activities is our crucial mandate for the care and use of our collection of Frankenthaler’s artwork. After this collection passed from her estate to the Foundation, we reviewed and consolidated its storage, making improvements by moving key paintings to a new storage facility. While undertaking basic conservation and photography on works going out on loan, we are currently continuing conservation assessments and upgrading cataloguing records and photographic holdings for the collection overall. These will provide the basis for an enhanced new database that will aid the preparation of a future catalogue raisonné, which we hope to begin in 2017.
Another early priority has been making works from our collection available for loan as widely as possible. Since 2014, the Foundation has lent work to numerous exhibitions at museums, ranging from the Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK, and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, to American institutions including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Des Moines Art Center, The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, the Parrish Art Museum, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Hunter College Art Gallery, and the Denver Art Museum. Planning for and readying loans to upcoming exhibitions is another ongoing mandate for both Frankenthaler’s own artworks and her collection of works by other artists, including Édouard Vuillard, Henri Matisse, David Smith, Morris Louis, and many others also in our care.
The varied exhibition activity, centering on and including Frankenthaler’s work at museums, has been complemented by three major exhibitions presented by Gagosian Gallery since 2013. All have been accompanied by substantial publications that add greatly to the literature on Frankenthaler. In September/October 2016 at the Beverly Hills Gallery, a video of the artist speaking about her works was also included that remains available on the Gallery’s website.
We work with and assist writers of exhibition catalogues and independent authors with research, fact-checking, and photographs. Likewise, we have participated in and provided research materials for use in conferences, panels, and seminars at the Turner Contemporary, the Albright-Knox, the Portland Art Museum, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and academic institutions, including the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, which convened a symposium on art-historical reconsiderations of Helen Frankenthaler’s work in fall 2015. We have also provided numerous images of Frankenthaler and her work to interested parties for texts in print and online platforms worldwide.
During our initial phase, we have also focused on the development of the Foundation’s philanthropic program. We made our first grants to organizations of special significance to Helen Frankenthaler and with which she had a strong connection during her lifetime. The visual arts program at Bennington College, Frankenthaler’s alma mater, has been our foremost grantee to date. We have also provided funds to cultural and educational institutions important to Frankenthaler’s life, work, and interests, including the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Yaddo, the Center for Contemporary Printmaking, and The Rose Art Museum, among others.
Now, three years after its inauguration, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation is an established organization that is increasingly viewed as a significant presence in the community of artist-endowed foundations. From my standpoint as the Foundation’s founding director, achieving a momentum for this new organization and crafting its identity has been made possible by several key factors. These include the encouragement of a supportive Board and the availability of ample resources, coupled with the presence of a large and important collection of artworks from all decades of the artist’s career, as well as a largely unexamined trove of archives that offer outstanding research opportunities. At the same time, an escalating interest in Frankenthaler’s work on the part of artists, scholars, and curators, alongside a renewed focus on the achievements and contributions of women artists in our time, has helped re-introduce and reposition Helen Frankenthaler as one of the leading mid-to late-twentieth century abstractionists, whose reputation continues to rise and be reassessed as the presence of her work increases on museum walls and in publications worldwide.
While this alignment of factors has been strongly positive, there have also been challenges and unexpected developments. Locating a permanent home for the Foundation took much longer than expected, delaying our onsite access to archival materials and initially hampering our ability to assist writers and researchers or conduct our own scholarship. We also grappled with issues concerning reassessment of Frankenthaler’s art-historical legacy. Extensive internal conversations took place at the Board level about whether it was desirable for Frankenthaler’s work to be repositioned in relationship to the surge of interest in art by women, given her antipathy towards being identified as a “woman artist.” As Frankenthaler once commented, “I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”1 We discussed the necessity of being open to changing developments in art historical scholarship and reexaminations of pioneering achievements by women artists—in which case it seemed unthinkable and even irresponsible not to include Frankenthaler. We became convinced that it was imperative to participate whenever possible in publications and exhibitions that foster new interpretations.
An additional challenging question for us during our early years has been the pace at which an organization like ours should grow. We have been fortunate to have the ability to create our own projects and to set our own deadlines, as we have considered and shaped our own approach to “best practices” in the artist-endowed foundation field.
At present, we are advancing a number of ideas and initiatives for future development, centering largely on expanding the reach of our collection. Together with the Board, we are beginning to carefully consider the subject of placing works in museum collections, with the aim of also understanding how our own collection might best continue to serve our mission beyond our current loans program. We hope to have this plan in place by the end of our next three-to five year cycle. Our deliberations will include not only Frankenthaler’s paintings, but also, for example, her extensive explorations in printmaking and her collection of works by other artists.
Over the next three-to five years, as we continue processing and digitizing select portions of our holdings, we plan to bring more focus to the Foundation’s archives. This will be essential for our catalogue raisonné, as well as for our ability to assist more deeply with scholarship when book-length projects get underway. We intend to mount regular exhibitions of materials from our archives on site, as well as at other locations in tandem with exhibitions of artwork. Beginning in 2017, we will also be exploring such new initiatives as an internship program and collaborations with other archival repositories.
With regard to grant making and support of other institutions, we intend to deepen our interactions and relationships with several with which we have already established an affiliation, such as the Department of Visual Arts at Bennington College. At the same time, we plan to continue to provide support to arts organizations, including universities and schools, residency programs, museums, publishing projects, and others.
On the public programming front, we intend to build on and broaden the scope of events we have presented at the Foundation, continuing to convene gatherings for panels, lectures, and special focus topics for groups interested in Frankenthaler’s work, her legacy, and the practice of our foundation. In the coming year, we will also launch a new series of panels and discussions that go beyond Frankenthaler, her life and times, and her circle to consider other aspects of the field and involve new participants. Our goal will be to further the momentum the Foundation has established as a forum for discussion and dialogue, bringing people together from various parts within the visual arts community.
Let me say in conclusion that we are determined that all these initiatives shall reflect the interests of Helen Frankenthaler’s life and work—her legacy as a youthful pioneer and longtime innovator, her commitment to the serious work of studio practice, and her love of spirited dialogue, discourse, and learning—characteristics which I hope have also come to be central to the identity of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation itself.
For more information about the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, visit http://www.frankenthalerfoundation.org
Douglas Dreishpoon, Giving Up One’s Mark. Helen Frankenthaler in the 1960s and 1970s. (Buffalo, New York: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2014).
John Elderfield, Frank O’Hara, and Carl Belz, Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959. (New York: Gagosian Gallery and Abrams, 2013).
James Hamilton, Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and J.M.W. Turner. (Margate, Kent, UK: Turner Contemporary, 2014).
Francine Prose and Carol Armstrong, with preface by John Elderfield, Line into Color, Color into Line: Helen Frankenthaler, Paintings 1962–1987. (Beverly Hills: Gagosian Gallery, 2016).
Katy Siegel, ed. “The heroine Paint”: After Frankenthaler. (New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2015).
Elizabeth A. T. Smith, Helen Frankenthaler: Composing with Color: Paintings 1962-1963. (New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2014).
1 John Gruen, The party’s over now: Reminiscences of the fifties—New York’s artists, writers, musicians, and their friends. (New York: Viking Press, 1972).
Entrance to the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York