Whaam! Pow! Lichtenstein Foundation Starts to Wind Down With Big Gifts

Roy Lichtenstein’s “Sweet Dreams, Baby!” from 1965. The screenprint is one of the works going to the Whitney Museum of American Art from the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

At a time when some single-artist foundations are exploring new ways to stay relevant by hosting artist residencies, or giving prizes, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation is making a dramatic impact by beginning the process of winding itself down.

And it is doing so with a bang — or as Lichtenstein might have rendered it in Ben-Day dots, with a Pow!

The foundation is announcing this week that it is giving around 400 artworks in all media by the Pop Art master — about half its holdings — to the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The museum’s director, Adam D. Weinberg, said that the donation, one of the biggest single-artist gifts the Whitney had ever received, would become “one of the historical markers of the institution,” and comparable to its renowned, if larger, Edward Hopper collection.

The foundation will also give historical material comprising approximately half a million documents to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. The director of the archives, Kate Haw, said she believed it was the largest single-artist trove the institution had ever received.

For the Greenwich Village-based foundation, which is dedicated to promoting the legacy of Lichtenstein, and contemporary art in general, the gifts mark the beginning of the end.

Jack Cowart, 73, the foundation’s executive director, said, “We decided we wanted to get out of the art-holding business.”

Dorothy Lichtenstein, 78, the foundation’s president and chief benefactor, said, “I like the idea handing it off, and seeing what the future brings.” Ms. Lichtenstein was married to the artist from 1968 until his death in 1997. “Every 10 years I say, ‘How about winding it up in the next 10 years?’” she added. “I don’t want to leave things up in the air.”

Smaller gifts will be going to other institutions.

“We know we’re opening the floodgates” of requests from museums and others by making such an announcement, Mr. Cowart said.

Christine J. Vincent, who studies artist-endowed foundations at the Aspen Institute, said the winding down process itself wasn’t necessarily unusual. “Not all foundations intend to exist in perpetuity,” she said. “For this type, estate distribution is their mission.”

But Ms. Vincent added: “The interesting thing about the Lichtenstein Foundation has been their heroic and imaginative efforts to give to networks and consortia around the globe. That ensures the work will be accessible to the public.”

She referred not only to this latest mega-gift but also the foundation’s role in acquiring and then giving away an archive of some 200,000 prints, negatives and other material, the Harry Shunk and Shunk-Kender Photography Collection, to five institutions in 2013. It included photographs of the major European and American artists, studios, performances, and exhibitions from 1958 to 1973.

The new Whitney material, which will establish a Roy Lichtenstein Study Collection at the museum, includes five paintings, 17 sculptures and 145 prints. (The museum already had 26 works by the artist.)

Mr. Weinberg said the Whitney got to pick from the foundation’s holdings, a sort of museum version of the old game show “Supermarket Sweep.”

“They left it wide open,” he said.

The trick, Mr. Weinberg added, was not being “piggy” and coming up with a selection that complemented what the Whitney already had: a lineup strong in 1960s Lichtenstein work but weaker in other periods. And it had to justify each pick.

Whitney staffers chose from Lichtenstein’s most recognizable and valuable period, including the 1964 sculpture “Head of Girl.” But they also took early works not in the artist’s signature style, like “Pilot” (1948) and “Untitled” (ca. 1959—60), to show his range and early experiments with other styles.

Also this fall, the museum will start to program classes in Lichtenstein’s studio, which is four blocks away. The proximity of the museum, as well as the friendliness of the leadership teams, made the large gift easier, Mr. Cowart said.

“We were extraordinarily influenced by the simpatico nature of this great museum next door,” he said.

In a process that will take five to seven years, a joint team from the Archives of American Art and the foundation will digitize all of the archival contents. Access to the material will be free on the archive’s website.

Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, pointed out that there were other foundation chiefs of Ms. Lichtenstein’s generation “who need to make this decision, too,” about whether to keep a foundation going or not.

“It’s a predicament in the art world right now,” Mr. Eccles, who is also on the board of the Keith Haring Foundation, said. “The Lichtenstein gift will be one of these banner trials.”

Mr. Cowart noted that the foundation was still occasionally adding to its holdings. But he thought the time was right to act.

“Let’s do this while we are here,” Mr. Cowart said, “rather than it being a remainder sale.”

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