Rauschenberg Foundation: Bridging the Gap Between Art & Life

From working for international peace to funding art workshops in inner-city laundromats, the Rauschenberg Foundation aims to honor the artist’s passion to make the world a better place

On a brisk evening last fall, a food truck stood parked outside the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space in Chelsea. This particular food truck, however, was not just a food truck. It was a participatory artwork entitled GhostFood that served up simulated taste experiences of foods—such as chocolate, peanut butter, and codfish—that are under threat from the effects of global warming on the food chain.

Actors run the GhostFood mobile trailer, created by Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster, part of “Marfa Dialogues/New York.”COURTESY GHOSTFOOD

Actors run the GhostFood mobile trailer, created by Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster, part of “Marfa Dialogues/New York.”


GhostFood, created by Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster, formed part of a group show opening that evening at the foundation. Curated by Fairfax Dorn and titled “Quiet Earth,” it focused on the issue of climate change in the works of artists such as Agnes Denes, Maya Lin, Trevor Paglen, Donald Judd, and Rauschenberg himself. The exhibition in turn was the centerpiece of a two-month-long series of climate change–related events called “Marfa Dialogues/New York,” organized under the auspices of the foundation, which included exhibitions, film screenings, performances, lectures, and panel discussions in more than 30 venues across New York City.

“Marfa Dialogues/New York” is just one of an array of initiatives funded and supported by the Rauschenberg Foundation since it embarked on full-scale operations in 2012. Others include a visual literacy campaign in Tanzania, art workshops in inner-city laundromats, small-scale artist-run institutions across the United States, and an artist-residency program in Rauschenberg’s studio in the barrier islands of Florida. In the process, the foundation has established itself as a dynamic presence in the world of cultural philanthropy, maintaining Rauschenberg’s own impassioned commitment to charitable causes while extending his signature artistic ethos of bridging “the gap between art and life.”

“These aren’t just grants that we’re going to give to art institutions that do Rauschenberg exhibitions—that’s just not what we do,” said Christy MacLear, the foundation’s executive director. “We look at our grant making through the lens of the values that defined Bob. So you don’t only say, ‘What would Bob do?’ Instead, you set up a framework so that a hundred years from now you can ask: Is it collaborative? Is it boundary-breaking? Is it risk-taking? Is there a concept of creative problem-solving? Is it international and looking at art as a method of peacekeeping?”

“They’ve hit the ground running,” said Jack Flam, president and CEO of the Dedalus Foundation, which was founded by Robert Motherwell to foster public understanding of modern art while preserving the painter’s own artistic legacy. “In classic philanthropy, you give money away. Then there’s another kind, where you start programs that give money away. But then again there are artist foundations that are actually involved in programs as they develop, which in fact is something all artist foundations are thinking about now. They’re doing that from the start at the Rauschenberg Foundation.”

Rauschenberg died in 2008 at age 82 at his home on Captiva Island, Florida. Throughout his life, he had been active—indeed, an activist—in numerous charitable and philanthropic activities, including initiatives of his own devising such as Change, Inc., which gave emergency relief grants to artists in distress, and ROCI (the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange), which established a network of artists around the world with the intention of promoting world peace through cultural exchange.

The Fish House on Captiva Island is part of Rauschenberg’s 20-acre estate, where he lived and worked for 40 years. LAURIE LAMBRECHT/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK

The Fish House on Captiva Island is part of Rauschenberg’s 20-acre estate, where he lived and worked for 40 years.


At the same time, Rauschenberg was a staunch supporter with donations of cash and artwork to a range of political causes and charitable organizations, including the Coalition for the Homeless, the Lab School of Washington, D.C., for students with special needs (such as dyslexia, from which Rauschenberg himself suffered severely), animal refuge centers, and abused women’s shelters. He was committed to ecological issues; in fact, the poster for the very first Earth Day was a collage he designed and donated to the burgeoning environmental cause in 1970.

“My father is generally described as very generous, but that’s not really accurate—he was a team player,” said Christopher Rauschenberg, the artist’s son, who is the president and chair of the foundation’s board of directors (as well as an artist in his own right). “Think of a basketball team. If the point guard passes down the lane to the center and the center dunks the ball, you wouldn’t say the point guard was generous. You would say he’s a good team player. My father was like that—but his team was everyone, the whole world.”

Although Rauschenberg established his foundation in 1990 as a means to channel his personal charitable activities, it was only after his death that it adopted its current structure. Rauschenberg himself drafted the articles of incorporation. They state that the foundation will pursue philanthropic efforts in art, international peacekeeping, the environment, health and human services, and education: “Basically, anything but religion and politics,” MacLear said. “It’s hilarious, it’s so broad!”

Once the foundation began its transition to full-scale operations, its board—which in addition to Christopher includes art-world figures such as painter Chuck Close, collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund, and Dorothy Lichtenstein, widow of the painter Roy Lichtenstein—established three main focus areas (or “levers,” as MacLear calls them) for its activities: increasing access to and scholarship about Rauschenberg’s work, maintaining the foundation’s artist-residency program in Florida, and philanthropic endeavors.

Rauschenberg’s artistic legacy is promoted through programs that subsidize the exhibition and acquisition of works from the foundation’s collection by arts institutions around the country. Through its Gift Purchase Program, the foundation offers works by Rauschenberg to certain museums at half their market price; the Loan Bank program lends works to smaller institutions (often college museums) while covering basic costs such as transportation and insurance. In 2013 the foundation also donated more than 100 works worth more than $1 million from Rauschenberg’s personal collection to various institutions: a score by John Cage went to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and a portfolio of Ray Johnson’s correspondence was given to the Museum of Modern Art.

In addition, according to MacLear, the foundation is about to launch a “robust” new website that will provide extensive information about Rauschenberg’s work as well as access to his archives, and will make accessible less traditional materials such as video footage of Rauschenberg performances. Ultimately this website will serve as the basis for a print catalogue raisonné, MacLear said.

The artist-residency program is housed in Rauschenberg’s studio and surrounding buildings on the 20 acres of undeveloped land the artist acquired on Captiva during the more than 40 years he lived there. (The semi-wild habitat includes a single road, called the Jungle Road, mapped out by Rauschenberg and Cage using random methods.) Now entering its third year, the program brings artists from various disciplines together for four-week cycles during which collaboration is encouraged—an eclectic approach modeled on the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which Rauschenberg so fruitfully attended.

In 2012, the foundation launched its Project Space in Chelsea with “We the People,” a show that included political work from older and younger artists such as Alice Neel, Fred Wilson, and Swoon. GLENN STIEGELMAN

In 2012, the foundation launched its Project Space in Chelsea with “We the People,” a show that included political work from older and younger artists such as Alice Neel, Fred Wilson, and Swoon.


The program is by invitation only: the identity of the nominators who choose the artists is a closely kept secret. The chosen artists work in Rauschenberg’s studio, at his table and with his tools, including his own scissors, emblazoned with the emblematic phrase “For Art Only.”

The foundation’s philanthropic activity is divided into various subprograms, both within and beyond the confines of the art world. Since 2012 the foundation has awarded 350 grants of up to $150,000 each, with such direct grants in 2013 alone totaling over $2 million. For instance, SEED grants are awarded via nominations to small-scale art and artist-run organizations in targeted cities and consist of $30,000 divided into three annual payments.

“You don’t want to drink from a fire hose,” MacLear explained as the rationale for spacing out the payments to the generally shoestring operations. And in addition to the foundation’s new grant programs, it continues to support many of the organizations Rauschenberg himself supported: for instance, in 2011 the foundation commissioned Shepard Fairey to create a signed, limited-edition poster for the Coalition for the Homeless.

“We don’t want to give money to something that’s just going to happen anyway,” said Christopher Rauschenberg, who is a photographer and has run a nonprofit photography gallery in Oregon for the last 30 years. “We want to give money for something that’s not going to happen unless it gets this kind of support.”

“For the most part, artist-endowed foundations have sought minimal visibility beyond issuing press releases about their grants, scholarly publications, and exhibitions,” says Christine J. Vincent, who recently authored a study of artist foundations for the Aspen Institute. “But as with the rest of the greater foundation universe in the U.S., artist-endowed foundations are moving into a more proactive public communications mode, utilizing social media and seeking greater visibility as a strategy to advance their program aims. At this point, the Rauschenberg Foundation is the most active artist-endowed foundation using this approach, which makes sense in terms of the broader impact it is seeking.”

Today the Rauschenberg Foundation is headquartered on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan, in the building (formerly a Catholic orphanage) where Rauschenberg lived and worked for decades. It was once notorious for its heavy-duty partying and its heavy-hitting conversations about art, as well as for the artist’s pet turtle, Rocky, which Rauschenberg claimed had an unerring instinct for selecting his best work during the pauses in its slow-paced wanderings through the studio.

The unmarked Lafayette Street building—there is no name at the doorbell—holds the foundation’s archives and administrative offices, and with its staff of 15 serves as a hub for many of its activities. The building in Chelsea, with its 4,500 square feet of exhibition space, hosts shows dedicated to Rauschenberg’s work and to that of the foundation’s grantees.

Like many similar artist’s foundations in recent years, the Rauschenberg Foundation has decided to avoid authentication questions, advising those who want works authenticated to direct their requests to independent organizations such as the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR). According to both MacLear and Melissa Lazarov of Gagosian Gallery, which represents the Rauschenberg Estate, questions of authenticity are not a major issue, due primarily to the artist’s methodical registry, database, and archiving systems. “People aren’t faking Rauschenbergs,” MacLear said.

Although the foundation’s operating budget is not public, according to tax records the value of the assets bequeathed by Rauschenberg to the foundation—primarily artworks by the artist and his peers, as well as real estate and cash—total $600 million. That figure has become central to an internal dispute that has spilled over into the courts. As directed by Rauschenberg’s will, his estate was dispersed through a trust overseen by three people who had long been close: Darryl Pottorf, Rauschenberg’s companion and legal executor; Bill Goldston, a printmaker and the artist’s business partner since the 1960s; and Bennet Grutman, Rauschenberg’s accountant. The three were jointly responsible for overseeing the transfer of the estate’s assets to the foundation, where they themselves were initially board members.

Last year, however, they filed for $60 million as a fee for their work as trustees, basing that figure in part on their claim that the assets had increased in value to $2 billion during the five years of their trusteeship. They are entitled to a percentage of that sum, according to their attorney, Mike Gay.

The foundation has disputed the figure as excessive, claiming that under Florida law trustees are not paid according to the value of the assets in the trust, but rather receive a “reasonable fee” for their services. The case will likely go to trial this year; a hearing is scheduled in Lee County court in Florida on March 31.

Robert Rauschenberg with his son, Christopher, who is president and chair of the Rauschenberg Foundation’s board of directors, in 1999.  JANET STEIN

Robert Rauschenberg with his son, Christopher, who is president and chair of the Rauschenberg Foundation’s board of directors, in 1999.


“It’s unfortunate,” Christopher Rauschenberg said about the dispute with the trustees. “They are all friends of mine. Everyone feels they should be paid a reasonable amount. But the amount they want to be paid is not reasonable. So we have to set aside assets of the foundation until this is settled, which has impacted us. But we don’t want to sit around paralyzed. We want to get past this and move on.”

“The actual value of Mr. Rauschenberg’s assets has not increased anywhere near as much as the trustees pretend it has,” said Robert W. Goldman, the attorney representing the foundation. “In any event, the court will decide a reasonable fee based on the actual services rendered by the trustees, nothing more. Reasonable compensation, not asset valuation, is the legal standard in Florida, and we have not seen any evidence that supports the trustees’ position that $60 million is reasonable.”

“It was not an antagonistic relationship—it was the opposite,” said Gay. “They were board members. They wanted nothing more than to see the Rauschenberg Foundation succeed in its goals. And they are still of that position. But their work was a serious undertaking. It’s not simply holding onto Google stock and watching it go up. They had to find the best consultants, the best advisers, to implement a plan, to execute it flawlessly. Their administration was a complete success.”

According to MacLear—a self-described “business strategist in the cultural realm,” who was previously the executive director of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—many of the foundation’s programs are still being fine-tuned. At least some of the grant programs will eventually be restructured as open calls and will seek a more international scope, and at some point more works from the collection will be sold in order to aggregate a permanent endowment. In the meantime, however, the foundation’s guiding approach in all its efforts derives directly from Rauschenberg’s innate belief in “creative problem-solving.”

“We have opened formally, but ‘Rauschenberg formally’ —which means it’s always going to be in a state of pilot,” MacLear told ARTnews. “Obviously the goal is to be as democratic as possible, but you only do what you know you can do in the best way possible. I look at it as a stair-step process: everything evolves.”

George Stolz is an ARTnews contributing editor and Madrid correspondent.

A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 82 under the title “Bridging the Gap Between Art & Life.”

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