Of all the areas in which foundations give, probably the trickiest is in giving to the arts. Here the issue is not political but philosophical. The artists who need money the most are the ones who have tremendous potential, but who are just starting their careers. These creators need small but important grants to enable them to finish their first novels, initial paintings or sculptures, or a first symphony or concerto.
The outstanding example of successful arts grant-making is the Guggenheim Foundation between 1925-45. Its chief program officer, Henry Allen Moe, and his staff gave grants to Aaron Copland when he was twenty-four and Samuel Barber when he was twenty-six. Moe never wrote an autobiography and the books about the Guggenheim Foundation don’t give much detail about how the foundation operated during this period, but Moe’s example shows that talent spotting can work.
But far too many program officers funding the arts are risk-averse and fear failure or embarrassment. Why, an artist might take a grant and spend it on booze, girls, or boys! So these officers prefer to fund heavily credentialed scholars at the end of their careers who won’t humiliate their patrons.
Perhaps the all-time worst example of literary grantmaking goes to the Library of Congress, which in 2006 gave a half-million-dollar prize (funded by the Kluge Foundation) to John Hope Franklin, the eminent African-American historian. Franklin was ninety-one when he received the prize. No one involved with the prize explained why giving half a million to a man in his nineties was a good idea (and Franklin didn’t write very much more before his death in 2009 at age ninety-four).
Young artists need money, and if foundations aren’t going to give it to them, where are they going to get it?
According to Christopher Glazek, writing in the New York Times Magazine, they get it from people like Stefan Simchowitz.
You can get a sense of the tone of Glazek’s piece from its title, “Patron Satan,” and from this passage:
To his detractors, Simchowitz is the Michael Milken of the art world—someone who has created, through his extensive network and force of personality, a market for high-risk, high-yield investments that have little to do with the fundamentals of talent and critical acclaim.
The deal Simchowitz offers his clients is this: he’ll set you up, give you a monthly stipend for food and other essentials and he’ll buy your art—all of it—at what he thinks is a fair price. But then Simchowitz turns from patron to dealer and flips the art to an extensive network of collectors.
“I am 100 percent invested in art,” Simchowitz says.
I have no working capital. I make $100,000, I pay my taxes and overhead. $50,000 goes back to supporting some young artist’s career. It’s a very efficient system.
Occasionally Simchowitz will do far more. Glazek opens his piece by discussing the story of Amalia Ulman, a twenty-four-year-old artist who woke up one morning in a hospital in a small town in Pennsylvania with “a bone sticking out of her leg.” The Greyhound bus she was riding in smashed into a garbage truck, killing one and injuring scores of others.
Ulman had no insurance, and called Simchowitz, whom she met once at a party. He went into action, contacting a Texas lawyer he knew who specialized in bus crashes. The lawyer got Greyhound to pay for extensive time in the hospital and a stay at a recovery facility.
Now I’m not sure I approve of a call to an ambulance-chasing lawyer, but Ulman was hurt and Simchowitz helped. Who else would have stepped in?
I’m also willing to accept Glazek’s premise that Simchowitz, like many entrepreneurs, is a jerk. He’s the sort of guy who conveys his power by being photographed in his boxers while his partner and assistants are frantically looking away from their mostly undressed boss. (What this reminded me of was a “60 Minutes” profile of chicken tycoon Don Tyson I once saw where Tyson’s vice-presidents all wore suits while Tyson himself wore a brown jumpsuit that said “Don” on it.)
Like venture capitalists, Simchowitz is hoping that one of the people he funded will be the next Damien Hirst. He understands that 95 times out of 100 his investments won’t pay off. But he’s making investments in young artists—a task most foundations shun.
Stefan Simchowitz’s critics may not like his methods. But do they have a better method of supporting emerging artists?
P.S. The Amalia Ulman case reminds me to mention the good work of the Gottlieb Foundation, which has a program that helps pay the medical bills of artists who have been working for at least ten years (which means that Ulman wouldn’t qualify). The foundation can even, in dire emergencies, offer grants on forty-eight hours' notice. The Gottlieb Foundation should be commended for this very useful program.