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American Art: the State of the Field

Introduction

Since its inception in 1982, the Henry Luce Foundation’s American Art program has provided nearly $120 million to support approximately 250 exhibitions and catalogues, more than 250 doctoral dissertations, roughly 200 projects related to permanent collections, and four publicly accessible visible-storage centers in major museums, among other contributions to the field. Grants have ranged in size from $50,000 to $10 million, and grantees include some 250 museums, universities and service organizations in 47 states, the District of Columbia and internationally. The program’s focus is an object-based, aesthetic approach to art historical inquiry.

In spring 2008 as part of the cycle of regular program reviews, the foundation asked the independent consulting firm TCC Group to conduct a review of the field of American art scholarship, and to suggest ways the American Art program could more effectively meet the field’s needs. We are sharing the findings, in the hope that this will stimulate reflection about the state of the field and its possible futures. What follows is an edited version of TCC’s report.

The study was designed to answer the following questions:

  • What is the state of American art scholarship today?

  • What are the field’s needs and priorities for the near future?

  • In light of where the field is and where it wants to be, what are the next best steps for the American Art program?

  • What are the program’s most important contributions to the field, from the perspective of grantees and other stakeholders?

  • What do grantees perceive as the strengths and weaknesses of the program’s grant-making and communications processes?

  • How well do the program’s grant-making strategies serve its mission and vision? In what ways, if any, could strategy and mission be better aligned?

Answers to these questions are drawn from four sources of information, collected in summer 2008. TCC Group:

  • Conducted in-depth telephone interviews with 55 scholars, museum directors and other professionals, and the staff of leading grant makers in the arts. The interviews elicited opinions about recent changes in philanthropic support for American art, the future direction of scholarship and need for support, barriers to enhancements in scholarship, and the Luce Foundation’s contributions to the field.

  • Administered an anonymous online survey to collect quantitative data from a large number of current and past grantees of the American Art program. The survey focused on (1) satisfaction with application procedures, communication with and support from program staff, and reporting and monitoring requirements; (2) perceptions of the program’s grant-making structure and impact; and (3) future needs.

  • Reviewed program records about grants made between 2000 and 2007, and samples of written communications with grantees and advisors.

  • Interviewed the foundation’s president, American Art program director and a former president who serves on the board of directors.

The State of American Art Scholarship

Presenting and Managing Collections
Thanks largely to responsive grants made by the American Art program, American art collections have been catalogued and often reinstalled in museums of all sizes, in all parts of the United States. The compelling presentation of museums’ permanent collections continues to be a priority. Depending on the resources and location of individual museums, the key needs for presenting permanent collections include: revitalizing collections through reinstallation; reinterpreting materials; introducing new works through acquisition or collection sharing; and increasing the use of visible storage. The most pressing needs for managing collections are conservation (including surveys and treatment) and digitization. Some respondents said digitization and dissemination of research would overshadow needs for basic scholarly research in the coming years at most museums.

Producing Special Exhibitions and Catalogues
Respondents agreed that presenting the life and work of a single artist in a gallery exhibition and catalogue (the monographic study) has been an important achievement in American art, one fostered largely by the Luce Foundation. Some respondents, however, no longer find monographic studies compelling. They see thematic and group shows as more exciting explorations of the meaning of art in society. Others say there are deserving artists yet to receive the monographic treatment. As the pool of potential subjects shrinks, the field seems to be producing fewer monographic studies overall. A more international approach to interpretation is emerging, in which scholars examine how artists from different countries have influenced each other and exchanged ideas.

The rising costs of producing special exhibitions—attributed largely to increased borrowing, insuring, and freighting fees—are a great concern to museums. While all museums hope philanthropic support of exhibitions will keep pace with costs, they are also considering alternatives. Larger museums are looking to assemble special exhibitions from works in their own holdings, while smaller ones explore the possibility of collection sharing.

Encouraging American Art Scholars
Another need identified by many respondents is to stoke the interest of the most talented young scholars in museum-based careers, and in the study of American art. Respondents representing funders and museums of all sizes are concerned that young scholars lack interest in museum careers. They said universities do little to foster object-based inquiry, and museum curatorial salaries are not competitive with university faculty salaries. In addition, a few respondents worried that the best young scholars are choosing not to specialize in American art—those with European language skills and intellectual ambition beyond researching and writing monographs reportedly choose to specialize in other areas. Respondents viewed the Luce Foundation’s dissertation fellowships favorably, however, in terms of the quality and competitiveness of applicants. Thus, the fellowships are still seen as fostering the field.

Philanthropic Support for American Art Scholarship

Museums struggle to find the support they need for American scholarship in a changing philanthropic landscape. Among foundations that still fund museum-based scholarship, respondents observed several trends. First, they perceived a shift away from responsive grant making, toward an “entrepreneurial” or agenda-based approach. Second, more foundations are holding grantees accountable for measuring and reporting results. Third, corporate sponsors increasingly use arts funding as a public relations tool to serve their own interests, while government agencies reportedly are placing greater demands on grantees to demonstrate accountability, as grant dollars remain flat or decline.

The American Art Program’s Place in the Picture

Responsiveness
Nearly every respondent stressed the importance of philanthropic leadership. To many, the American Art program has played a key role in bringing into being the study of American art in museums and university art history departments. Equally important, respondents suggested, is continuing responsiveness to individual grantees, based on an understanding of what museums actually do and how.

Scope
Respondents also stressed the importance of national scope, in contrast to regional approach now favored by many funders (that creates a geographic imbalance in the distribution of philanthropic support), and a willingness to fund high quality, non-elite institutions.

Imprimatur of Quality
A respected foundation plays a important role in lending credibility to projects, enhancing an institution’s reputation among museum leaders, peer institutions, funders, and even staff members.

Conclusion

The Luce Foundation is gratified by the continued vitality of American art scholarship and programs, and remains committed to supporting these endeavors. We recognize the ongoing needs and are prepared to explore issues and concerns identified in the TCC report. We will study the findings, fine-tuning our grant-making practices where necessary. Longer term and more complex issues that might require new strategies will be the subject of future discussion with our board of directors and the field.

We thank all those who participated in the study and look forward to continuing the American Art program’s work in the years to come.


Telephone interview respondents:
Jeffrey Andersen, Florence Griswold Museum
Gail Andrews, Birmingham Museum of Art
Robert E. Armstrong, board member and former president, Henry Luce
      Foundation
Graham Beal, Detroit Institute of Arts
Doreen Bolger, Baltimore Museum of Art
Elizabeth Broun, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Elizabeth Burke, Museum of Modern Art
Rohit Burman, Metlife Foundation
Derrick Cartwright, San Diego Museum of Art
Wanda Corn, retired professor of American art history, Stanford University
John Davis, Department of Art, Smith College
Bruce Eldredge, Buffalo Bill Historical Center
Charles C. Eldredge, Kress Foundation Department of Art History,
     University of Kansas*
Anne Farrell, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
Linda S. Ferber, New-York Historical Society
Saul Fisher, American Council of Learned Societies
Robert Frankel, National Endowment for the Arts
Ann Friedman, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Michael Gilligan, president, Henry Luce Foundation
Elizabeth Glassman, Terra Foundation for American Art
Marian Godfrey, Pew Charitable Trusts
Thelma Golden, Studio Museum in Harlem
Morrison H. Heckscher, Metropolitan Museum of Art
William Hennessey, Chrysler Museum
Ellen Holtzman, program director for American art, Henry Luce Foundation
William Homer, retired professor of American art history, University of
      Delaware*
Douglas Hyland, New Britain Museum of American Art
Cheryl Ikemiya, Doris Duke Charitable Fund
Aldona Jonaitis, University of Alaska Museum of the North
Edward L. Jones, Booth Ferris Fund, JPMorgan Chase Private Banking
Mitchell Kahan, Akron Art Museum
George King, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Arnold Lehman, Brooklyn Museum
Max Marmor, Kress Foundation
Deborah Marrow, Getty Foundation
Peter Marzio, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
William McAvoy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Timothy J. McClimon, American Express Foundation
Lorraine M. Morales, program assistant American art, Henry Luce
      Foundation
Barbara Novak, retired professor of American art history, Columbia
      University*
Marion Oettinger, San Antonio Museum of Art
Robyn G. Peterson, Yellowstone Art Museum
Bonnie Pitman, Dallas Museum of Art
Peter Plagens, artist and journalist*
Mary Sue Sweeney Price, Newark Museum
David Resnicow, Resnicow/Schroeder Public Relations
Jock Reynolds, Yale University Art Gallery
Brenda Richardson, independent curator*
Ned Rifkin, former undersecretary for art, Smithsonian Institution
David P. Roselle, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Angelica Rudenstine, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Marsha Semmel, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Lewis Sharp, Denver Art Museum
Charles Steiner, Wichita Art Museum
Susan Strickler, Currier Gallery of Art
Nancy Stula, Lyman Allyn Museum
Adam Weinberg, Whitney Museum of American Art
Lawrence J. Wheeler, North Carolina Museum of Art
Louis Zona, Butler Institute of American Art


*Henry Luce Foundation American Art Program Advisor


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