In the early 1960s, in a time of artistic invention and energetic collaboration in the visual and performing arts, expectations for funding of experimental work in dance, music, and theater were limited. Some painters and sculptors got together to raise money for a series of dance performances and realized they had found a way to support the work of others in the community. The following is from a 1999 conversation with founder Jasper Johns on the spirit in which the Foundation was formed and how it evolved.
In 1954 I had helped Bob Rauschenberg a bit with his Minutiae set, his first for Merce Cunningham, and I continued to assist him with most of his stage work through 1960. We were friends with Merce and John Cage and saw them frequently. In 1955 there was an evening of Cunningham/Cage performances at Clarkstown High School in Rockland County where we met Emile de Antonio. In 1958 de, as he was known, Bob and I formed Impresarios Inc. which financed and produced the 25-year retrospective concert of John Cage's music at Town Hall in New York. I think it was the excitement of that event that led us in 1960 to produce an evening of the Cunningham Company at the Phoenix Theater on Second Avenue. Artists were a major part of the audiences for those performances.
When Merce began to plan a week of dance in a Broadway theater in 1963, we quickly realized that it would cost more money than we were used to having. Several artists offered works which might be sold to help cover the anticipated loss.
The sale of that group of works promised to fetch an amount somewhat larger than was needed and that led us to expand the idea. We would try to help others who were "in the same boat," as Merce put it. We sent telegrams to a large number of artists inviting them to a party at the Allan Stone Gallery where we explained our intention to establish a foundation and asked them to contribute works for a benefit show. Most responded enthusiastically and we began to plan an exhibition for which Allan Stone offered his gallery and the help of his staff. It was lively and a good many of the works were sold. Sadly the Cunningham Company's Broadway season never took place because it became impossible to schedule an appropriate theater for only one week. With the money raised from that show, we made grants to the Judson Church, the dancer Merle Marsicano, and the Paper Bag Players. Grants were also given to composers Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, and we presented a concert of their music at Town Hall.
The first exhibition established the Foundation's roots in the community of artists. Alfred Geller, a lawyer who became one of our first directors, suggested that we incorporate and declare our not-for-profit status allowing artists to take an income tax deduction for the value of their contributed works. Further benefit exhibitions were arranged, "Drawings, 1965," which needed three galleries (Leo Castelli, Kornblee and Tibor de Nagy) in order to display works by more than 175 artists, and an exhibition of prints with a poster designed by Claes Oldenburg at Kornblee in 1967. In 1963 John Cage had begun to ask composers to donate manuscripts for a book that might demonstrate the great variety of means for notating music. More than 250 composers contributed to that collection, edited by Cage and Alison Knowles and published by Something Else Press in 1969 as Notations. In 1999 the Foundation made a gift of the complete collection of 387 manuscripts to Northwestern University Music Library in Evanston, Illinois.
In spite of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which prohibited further deductions by artists for gifts of their own work to public causes, artists in America and abroad continued with great generosity to give to the Foundation's program. Between 1980 and 1995 they gave work for two large exhibitions of drawings, two of prints, and one of important paintings and sculptures. Income from these events enlarged the Foundation's endowment, making possible the larger grants which the Foundation is currently able to give.
Of course people from many fields have contributed over the years to the Foundation's program. But artists themselves, as individuals and as part of the community from which art arises, are primarily responsible for its existence, its growth and its continuation. I hope that younger artists will continue to be aware of this unique thing that artists have made, that they will take pride and pleasure in assisting its ongoing development.