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Transcript: Building Legacy with Charles C Bergman, Chairman of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation

Photo credit: Julian Cassady

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host Charlotte Burns, the Senior Editor at Art Agency, Partners. Joining me today is a lion of the philanthropic industry, Charles Bergman. Welcome Charles, it’s so nice to have you.

Charles Bergman: Pleasure to be here. 

Charlotte Burns: And Christy MacLear, the former Director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and now a colleague of mine at Art Agency, Partners, specifically tasked with looking at artists’ estates and foundations. Welcome Christy, thanks for being here.

Christy MacLear: I’m so pleased.

Charlotte Burns: Today we’re going to be discussing cultural philanthropy. Charles is a long time Chairman and CEO of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which is an organization he was instrumental in founding and which has awarded more than 4,100 grants since I think 1985, was it founded?

Charles Bergman: It came into being April 1st of ’85.

Charlotte Burns: And it’s given grants worth more than $65 million to artists in 77 countries. We’re so glad to have you here today, Charles. Should I call you Charles or Charlie?

Charles Bergman: If you’re angry, Chuck. If you’re pleased, Charlie.

Charlotte Burns: You told a wonderful story—that I’m hoping you’ll repeat—to Ted Loos in The New York Times a few years ago about meeting Pollock.

Charles Bergman: Carefully edited, I went to a very spiffy cocktail party in East Hampton the summer of ’63 and our hostess brought over a drunken, ill-shaven man, and with great ceremony, she introduced him as you would the Prince of Wales by saying, “May I present Jackson Pollock.” I said to this chap, “Mr. Pollock, may I say that your power and capacity to do unconscious material in your art I find very moving.” And at that, Pollock walked away, but before he did he gave me a vulgar tribute that makes anything that President Trump might pull—I’m carefully editing this story for propriety reasons. There was reference made to my anatomy and anyone else I gather who was around to hear it.

Charlotte Burns: That’s quite an introduction, and now you steward Jackson Pollock’s legacy, so it’s amazing the way that the world turns. How did we get from there to here?

Charles Bergman: The arch of foundations was established by then. What was not very common were artists endowed foundations of which there were relatively very few. When we came into being, you had the Warhol Foundation. You had the Dedalus Foundation. You had the Lichtenstein Foundation. You had…

Charlotte Burns: Albers and Gottlieb, I think.

Charles Bergman: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: I was reading that artist’s foundations in America are still relatively small. It’s less than 10% of the total private foundation industry, but the number is growing, and if you look at some of those figures—The Andy Warhol Foundation for visual arts reported assets of $355 million in 2014, which is an astonishing sum of money in terms of keeping the foundation financially stable, sorting out issues of legacy.

When you were coming into the job how did you wrap your head around what your main challenges were? Did you look at the other foundations that were in existence and think about what they were doing well or badly?

Charles Bergman: I did indeed, and there was one foundation at the time of our creation that was a role model—admirably so for what we would subsequently become—and that was the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation. But they really were a role model for what we would emulate.

Charlotte Burns: In what ways?

Charles Bergman: A sensitivity to personal needs of an artist, an appreciation for the fact that more important than projects, artists need money for the bare bones critical, personal and professional needs that everyone has to one degree or another. But artists have a terrible time getting support for their personal and professional expense.

Christy MacLear: One of the best things about that foundation, in my mind, is the focused nature of their giving. So people know exactly what purpose they serve and under what circumstances they go to the Gottlieb Foundation, and there are relatively few organizations that support artists’ emergency needs.

Charles Bergman: And there are many foundations that honestly purport to have a deep and abiding interest in the individual artist, but won’t support them.

Christy MacLear: That’s interesting. Because they’re supporting projects?

Charles Bergman: Projects, studies.

Charlotte Burns: When you say projects, do you mean research projects or archival projects?

Charles Bergman: Both.

Christy MacLear: Or the installation of an artist’s work or an exhibition.

Charles Bergman: Exactly.

Christy MacLear: Which are just as important, I think—a balance of all of these things is probably critical.

Charles Bergman: The balance must give concern to the fundamental needs of an artist, not just for artist supplies, casting materials, studio rent, but also for medical, psychological, dental care. Many individual artists do not have major medical insurance coverage.                  

There’s another dimension to the challenge that is personified by the current resident in The White House because, the way things look now, it is very questionable if there is going to be federal and, conversely, state and local governmental funding.

There is a vicious, dogmatic, totally irresponsible effort being made to shut down the two endowments—the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities—the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Charlotte Burns: Let’s talk a little bit about that now. What effect will that have on our community, on communities of artists?

Charles Bergman: Cutting off governmental support will jeopardize, in some serious fashion, the ability of private institutions and organizations to raise money and, in turn, this will trickle down to the detriment of the individual artist.

Christy MacLear: The NEA gives a dollar, and what happens is there’s a nine-to-one ratio. The community raises $9.00 for every one dollar given from the NEA, and when I was at the Rauschenberg Foundation, we found that it was essential to be a grant maker that becomes a multiplier.

Charlotte Burns: How do you track that, for starters?

Christy MacLear: So, a lot of these grants are matching grants. You actually are required to get—if you invest a dollar, that they have to raise a dollar. It creates this sort of catalytic effect. 

The NEA is essential from the infrastructure part—this part about ensuring exhibition through indemnity agreements, and that sounds super legal and kind of boring. But that fact of the matter is it’s about being able to cover bringing some of the most important artifacts into our country.

Charlotte Burns: And so, I’m going to ask you both a question: how do you fight that fight? If we’re in this moment that appears to be taking a darker turn, what are the next steps? How do you find lights in that?

Charles Bergman: The prospects are rather bleak. There are organizations, like the Americans for the Arts. Local arts councils hold public meetings. The corporate foundation world steps up to the plate. There are a number of ways local leadership is mobilized behind the needs of an institution or an organization.

But what I am—like a broken record—making in my appeal today is the fundamental necessity that the people who make the art, who create the dance, the music, the theater—the individual must be sustained, must be helped in order to stay alive in the profession that they’re called to be part of.

Christy MacLear: The arts represent 4.2% of GDP, and the NEA’s funding is .004% of the federal budget. That’s a huge disconnect between 4.2% of what we’re generating, relative to what we’re spending. Without us putting pressure on things, these things will not rise as matters of importance to our congressmen and our senators. I see people writing postcards—that’s so important—protesting and developing whole campaigns. And I think that those things are so much more important.

Charlotte Burns: This is a cynical point of view, but I’m not sure that the protests would achieve saving the NEA. It seems like we’re on this path, and it’s not even a major priority for the administration.

Charles Bergman: That’s true.

Charlotte Burns: And so I think that being engaged and being involved are obviously worthwhile, and I’m just sure that there’s a cause and effect in this particular scenario. So, I wonder if the NEA is on this branch that’s not going to be watered anymore. What can replace it, and how? If artists need to have this funding in order to make the dance, make the art, create the music, who steps in? Is it artist foundations? Is it private individuals? Is it the artists themselves forming co-ops and collectives?

Christy MacLear: What’s so interesting is it’s going to have to probably be all of those things. I love the idea of how when an artist supports an artistic industry, how it will change the landscape of what’s produced. We, as artist-endowed foundations—when I was a part of one—you could take risks that the NEA couldn’t even dream of, and so what will happen with artistic practice I think might be far more explosive and way more aggressive and interesting. It’s going to change what we see if artists are funding that.

Charlotte Burns: You think there will be more risks?

Christy MacLear: Absolutely.

Charles Bergman: Inevitably.

Christy MacLear: I was thinking about the responsibility of balancing your endowment, and your desire to give as much as possible, which I think is really one of the central aspects of an artist-endowed foundation.

Charles Bergman: Should be.

Christy MacLear: That balance is sort of one of the pressure points of being a leader of an artist-endowed foundation.

Charles Bergman: No question about it.

Christy MacLear: You hope that the artist-endowed foundation can be as flexible and malleable as possible so that when there is need—because let’s say the NEA is cut—there’s going to have to be a shift of funding. And I think that what will be critical is: how flexible are we to be able to respond to what needs to happen?

Charles Bergman: Permit me just to share one little statistic. When we were formed in 1985, Jerry Dickler and Jean Thaw—the two trustees of the estate who became two trustees of the newly formed Pollock-Krasner Foundation—gave me a motley investment portfolio, some paintings and drawings of Jackson and Lee and their blessing. The blessing was legitimate. The money was actual U.S. currency, but not very inspiring. And now—we’ve been in business since April of ’85—we have about 72 million left in our portfolio, and we have given away about 70 million dollars.

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Charles Bergman: We co-mingled funds from several sources of the estate, but most of the investment advice was to preserve capital, make strategic investments in terms of asset allocation—and if we made a little money, we were grateful for that. And that’s been our investment philosophy since the beginning.

Christy MacLear: What’s interesting is grant making and investments are starting to merge. People are looking at their investment portfolio as something that they could actively grant from. I believe that foundations, particularly artists’ foundations—really that’s part of their mandate. So how you invest and manage can be just another vehicle for giving grants out.

That’s sort of a bit more of a creative look at how can you use your financial assets to benefit this broader mission.

Charlotte Burns: Isn’t that a function too of being a more powerful? The muscles are larger. The artist foundation industry is wealthier. So probably these weren’t necessarily things you could consider in 1978 when there were four foundations. Now, foundations are worth so much more money, and there’s probably more to come in the sense that there’s a lot of artists who make a lot of money these days who must be thinking about their legacy.

Christy MacLear: Yeah, I mean, if you don’t plan it, what often happens is people fight on the backend, which is never productive and nobody’s intent.

Charlotte Burns: When I was at The Art Newspaper, I spent a lot of my time writing about those arguments because whenever I was short of a story, I think, “who’s falling out with whom now?” And there was always some kind of legal fight that you could pour over documents and get salacious enough details. Every single one was different. There was always a fallout with a lover and a wife, or a brother and a sister, or children who felt abandoned. And there’s all these emotional issues that are left that are so fascinating from a kind of voyeuristic point of view. But I’m sure close up a pretty tense dealing with that, and balancing questions of funding, of legacy, of importance of who gets a voice, who gets to have the authoritative take on another person’s life in history. How do you tackle that?

Christy MacLear: I think if anybody’s had a parent who’s died, and there’s a family fight over a table, you just—now imagine that with the magnitude of millions of dollars.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Christy MacLear: So there’s emotional grief, there’s lack of direction, and then there’s some treacherous characters sometimes who try to take advantage of situations historically. And so I think the more you can spell things out, and the more you can know things like in New York, a trustee is allowed to get 5% of an estate, well that could be a huge amount money unless you put a cap on that.

What advice would you give, Charlie?

Charles Bergman: My advice without exception is to place your fiduciary needs and requirements under the benevolent eye and review and scrutiny of very competent lawyers, accountants who are real pros in this byzantine field of artist-endowed foundations. We are very proud and grateful that we have won some historic lawsuits rendered by people who thought that—even though they had a waiver that they would not sue, were displeased at our refusal to authenticate art of our principles, Jackson and Lee, and threatened to sue us for all kinds of questionable and bogus reasons.

We won every one of these lawsuits—every one of them—and we no longer are in the business of authenticating art.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think somebody else should pick that up—that mantle of authenticating work?

Charles Bergman: Yes I do, and I think it should be Ifar, the International Foundation for Art Research headquartered in New York.

Christy MacLear: That’s actually a great way to go about it because it removes it from the artist estate or foundation and it centralizes it. There are great examples of people who have cleaned up. The Calder Foundation is exemplary in pulling the fakes off the market, thus creating sort of an absolutely pristine…

Charlotte Burns: Confidence.

Christy MacLear: …a confidence in the market, and so bravo to [Alexander Calder] for doing that. And as you know, you can spend so much money on lawyers—it’s just remarkable when you really want to be giving back to artists. This is sort of a problem in a litigious society, which is thinking that you can make money off of authentication.

Charles Bergman: And people have and continue to do so.

Charlotte Burns: Then how would Ifar protect themselves against those kind of lawsuits? They would need mass funding. Several foundations have abandoned authentication. The Haring Foundation doesn’t authenticate, the Basquiat Foundation, the Warhol Foundation. People have their own separate catalog raisonné projects, but in terms of authenticating as an arm of their business, a lot of people have just stopped that over the last few years. Scholars have said they’re scared of giving their opinions for being sued, even though there aren’t actually any cases where that has been tried in court and been found to be successful.

Christy MacLear: Yeah, and it starts to erode and threaten the concept of a catalog raisonné…

Charles Bergman: Absolutely.

Christy MacLear: …which people are starting to put in their own LLCs, or it becomes a separate corporation, so that they can’t touch the body of the artwork or the endowments.

Charlotte Burns: Tell me a little bit more about that, what do you mean?

Christy MaClear: Well, meaning a catalog raisonné is essentially a prophylactic to authentication. So if the catalog raisonné is the list to which we check for authentication, then it becomes, you know, the target for a lawsuit. And so people are starting to look at that as how can we separate it, hold in a LLC so that it actually becomes legally…

Charlotte Burns: Safeguarded.

Christy Maclear: …safeguarded from the body of the foundation.

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Christy MacLear: It’s complicated.

Charles Bergman: Fraught with peril.

Charlotte Burns: The artist foundation world. It’s ’cause there’s so much more money in it nowadays, you know?

Charles Bergman: The stakes are high.

Charlotte Burns: The stakes are a lot higher.

Christy MacLear: And we’re treading new ground. It’s one of the reasons why the artist-endowed foundations are very familial to one another. Because it’s young, we’re learning all of these things together. We don’t have an industry association, but we loosely affiliate through what you created, Charlie, the Aspen Institute study, run by Christine Vincent, and it shares best practices for people, and I point that out like a salesman, because I think it’s a really critical thing to read.

Charles Bergman: It’s two volumes, and there is an abridged version of it.

Charlottes Burns: I have it right here.

Christy MacLear: The two volumes could be a bed stand.

Charles Bergman: Be careful that you don’t drop that on your foot, my dear.

Christy MacLear: This is the organization that’s gathering data on the growth of the industry, or the impact of the industry.

Charles Bergman: And doing it all the time, updating their findings.

Christy MacLear: And artists should know about that because that’s a great resource for them, so that nobody makes mistakes and knows the gray paths.

Charlottes Burns: What were the biggest mistakes you made, Charlie?

Charles Bergman: I think the biggest mistake that we made in retrospect, even though we have no deadlines, because life does not offer deadlines, and people can apply to us at any time in the year—I like the idea of continuing that receptivity and openness. I also think we made a mistake in not embracing fine art still photography. Until very recently, our grants have been restricted to painting, sculpture, printmaking—artists who work on paper. We have been very permissive in who we give grants to. I like the idea—and believe that Lee would have liked the idea—that we make our grants as humane as possible. And if the decision to make or not make a grant rests primarily on artistic merit versus legitimate financial need, I think we’re doing the right thing to tip the scale strategically to the personal and professional need of an artist. I can’t overemphasize how important that is.

A very interesting statistic—anecdotal, not scientific—90% of all the artists who apply to us are god-awful. They are not worthy of a garden, sidewalk, Sunday art show. But of the 10% that survive the committee of selection’s artistic review—of that 10%, 90% roughly end up getting grants, which means if you’ve got any talent whatsoever, and any legitimate documentable case to be made for your art, you’ve got a damn good chance of getting a grant from us.

Christy MacLear: That’s really funny. ‘Cause when I was at the Rauschenberg Foundation, Chris[topher] Rauschenberg used to tell this story. He’d say, “Bob would invest in the artists that he thought were the worst, ‘cause he thought that they would be the ones that would be pushing the boundaries of what we recognized as what we loved”.

I wanted to share what I learned, actually at the Philip Johnson Glass House. I sold too fast. We didn’t know when the works were chosen to be sold to create our endowment. What we were going to do—I regret selling a Warhol of his mother, because it really should have been in the painting gallery of the Philip Johnson Glass House, had I know what our programmatic needs were. So that’s a regret I have.

Charlotte Burns: Why did you, why did you sell it at the time? You felt like you needed more assets?

Christy MacLear: Well, no. The estate was being very well managed, but the timing of the estate relative to the planning of the site were not done, sort of—they were done linearly versus in parallel. It had been better to know “How are we going to use the site?” and then figure out what we were going to sell.

Charlotte Burns: Patience.

Christy MacLear: Yeah. So, selling too fast is a bad idea. The other thing was to pilot before you actually start implementing. When we were opening the residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation, we really took some time to see. Let’s bring people down and see what they want to do, and listen to them, and then respond in our planning to what people’s uses were.

Charlotte Burns: What kind of people? When you say you wanted to bring people in?

Christy MacLear: We invited artists down and just said, “Your only obligation is to give us feedback on what do you need, and what do you want.” You can over-plan…

Charles Bergman: But the other side of the coin—the organizations like the American Academy [in Rome], Yaddo, Provincetown’s Fine Art[s] Work [Center], Santa Fe [Art Institute]…

Christy MacLear: My god. They’ve been at it for 100 years.

Charles Bergman: Yes. Skowhegan [School of Painting and Sculpture]. Wonderful examples of the enriching experience artists fortunate enough to be accepted for their residency programs—have a unique memorable opportunity to exchange values, experiment in new innovative ways of doing their art.

Christy MacLear: The most successful thing I think is when an artist comes in and then leaves a different artist, like with different disciplines because they had that moment, that clear space.

Charlotte Burns: I remember once asking how Howard Hodgkin, you know, about his life, and he’d had ups and downs emotionally and personally, and he’d had a period when he’d been deeply depressed. And I asked him why, and he said it was sort of normal middle age and the pressures of life, and then he changed his life and really focused on his art and became Howard Hodgkin with the works that we associate with him.

But I thought that was so interesting the—just the pressures of middle age. You know, something so mundane can make or break an artist’s career. I guess that’s true of most people.

Christy MacLear: I think a lot of the emergency grant requests you get are around sort if financial stresses that artists feel.

Charles Bergman: Very much so.

Christy MacLear: Right? I mean, the making of the rent and the paying of the bills, and I think that the ability to pull yourself out of that and have a stipend to cover it and to suspend reality for a moment.

Charles Bergman: To give a grant to an artist who has known struggle and despair and futility and frustration—that grant can be a restorative agent to reinforce the self-worth and the self-esteem that is desperately being eroded.

Charlotte Burns: Charlie, one thing I wanted to ask you about was your upcoming book. Can you tell me a little bit more about what we expect to read and when?

Charles Bergman: If I live long enough, the book may see the light of day. It’s an autobiographical memoir that touches on various stages of my life and how I had some vague, yet to be fully defined challenge in wanting to help people who were hurting. My background has heavily been in mental health—not as a therapist but as a patient, I hasten to add. I was exposed to a great deal of pain and suffering in the lives of people that I was close to. It made a great deal of sense for me to become attracted to the reconciliation of the men of the cloth versus the men of the couch, and the idea of playing a role in helping people who were hurting had a great deal of relevance and meaning for me.

I think that there’ll be people who will see my book as somewhat frivolous and lacking in dignity at times, but I also think I have a message that I have shared with others and want to broaden the exposure to that life.

Christy MacLear: But you’re also the best raconteur. You’re the best storyteller ever. You’ve been my mentor for a long time. You have been in the art world and in this world of philanthropy for nay half a century. I think your book is going to be great.

Charles Bergman: Thank you.

Charlotte Burns: Well thank you so much for being our guests today. Thank you so much Charlie Bergman. It’s been a huge pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you Christy MacLear for being here today and for organizing all of this as well.

Christy MacLear: It’s my pleasure to share Charlie with the world.

Charles Bergman: It’s my pleasure to be shared in your good company.