• 09.04.13

How One Foundation Is Making Waves With Art And Social Activism

Artist Robert Rauschenberg’s foundation may not have the biggest endowment, but it’s trying to shake up the giving world with new models to support the arts.

How One Foundation Is Making Waves With Art And Social Activism
[Image: Flickr user Andrew Russeth]

If you haven’t heard of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, a New York City foundation that operates according to the idea that “art can change the world,” it may because the organization has operated mostly under the radar since its founding in 1990. That’s about to change. Artist Robert Rauschenberg passed away in 2008, and now his assets–including art and real estate–are being transferred to the foundation, which plans to grow to a $350 million endowment (it’s currently at $18 million).


In August, the foundation hired Risë Wilson, the founder of The Laundromat Project, as its first director of philanthropy. She’s already thinking about how to shake up traditional philanthropic models.

Wilson’s Laundromat Project, a nonprofit that brings artists and art to local laundromats in communities of color, was a natural stepping stone for the foundation. “The path of starting a nonprofit connected me to the world of philanthropy,” she says. “I was preoccupied on how to deploy resources that are useful.”

She compares private philanthropy to investing, where there are blue chip stocks that are “safe” along with small caps that are riskier. In the philanthropic world, there are large organizations that are a sure bet, and so they are heavily supported. But just because they’re safe doesn’t mean they’re doing the best work. Wilson believes those “small cap” organizations need a closer look. “One of the opportunities for philanthropy–there’s this huge DIY culture, entrepreneurial style organizations, artist-led organizations–and there have to be new ways of supporting new models of operating,” she says. “It might not look like a grant, maybe it looks like a loan.”

To that end, the Rauschenberg Foundation eschews the Overhead Myth, which evaluates a nonprofit’s effectiveness by how much they spend on overhead costs like rent and salaries–the lower the overhead, the better. Instead, the foundation gives an unrestricted amount of operating capital to small- and medium-sized art institutions throughout the country.

Wilson is also investigating ways to use the foundation’s other assets, like real estate. “How do we make a New York-based site available and meaningful for a North Dakota grantee? How might a grantee in L.A. leverage having a New York audience. What are some of the challenges around that?” she asks.

In the immediate future, Wilson is focusing on the foundation’s upcoming Marfa Dialogues/NY–a series of events in October and November that will bring together art, climate change science, and environmental activism. A sample event, from the Marfa Dialogues website:

Gallery Aferro presents GhostFood, a participatory performance by Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster that explores eating in a future of food scarcity and biodiversity loss brought on by climate change. GhostFood is a food truck that serves, via wearable device, simulated taste experiences of foods threatened with extinction due to the effects of climate change. Scents of threatened foods will be paired with climate change-resilient food stuffs, and exchanged for ideas with the public.

Wilson is also working on the next steps for the foundation’s Artist as Activist program (last year’s artist was Shepherd Fairey, who sold prints to raise money for the Coalition for the Homeless). The foundation has for months been talking to Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, who has been doing work in Egypt, about the possibility of her becoming the next Artist as Activist.


The Rauschenberg Foundation currently has between 60 and 80 grantees–a number that probably won’t expand. But, says Wilson, “We hope that we have a more open call so that it’s not just curated opportunities for support but that we’re able to do requests for proposals, to bring more voices into the selection process.”

“It’s wide open what is available for this foundation to do. It’s exciting, but also a challenge,” she says. “This foundation is built on a legacy of a person with many different interests. Even as we steward his legacy, that can go in many different directions.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.