Judith Rothschild, Bar Harbor. Whiteline woodblock print. Via Artnet

If you are a contemporary art curator or historian, chances are good that you have either applied for or considered applying for a Judith Rothschild Foundation grant. Founded by Judith Rothschild, an abstract painter who died in 1993, the Foundation has until recently awarded grants to curatorial and scholarly projects that highlight the work of “under-recognized, deceased artists” with the strange provision that those artists must have died “after September 12th, 1976 and before March 7th, 2008 (15 years before the date of her will and 15 years after her death).” The Rothschild Foundation been an important, if relatively modest, funding source for professionals working on books, exhibition and archival projects that promote the work of lesser-known artists who never attained a great deal of fame in their lifetimes.

No more. The New York Times reported yesterday that the Rothschild Foundation has defaulted on all 17 of its 2009 grants — including $7,000 to include a work by Simon Gouverner in a group exhibition at Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago, and a $5,000 grant to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, MO, for an exhibition of Dan Christensen’s paintings.

From the Times article:

The grants were to have been used in the “coming year,” the foundation said when it announced them in March 2009. But the money – more than $100,000 in total – has yet to be received, and recipients who have tried to contact the foundation for information at its New York headquarters have been met by a disconnected number and returned mail. (The foundation Web site, judithrothschildfdn.org, still listed the address and phone number on Tuesday.) Harvey S. Shipley Miller is its sole trustee.

“When I wrote to the foundation in May, and the e-mail bounced back, that sent up a red flag,” said Wendy Snyder, director of the Sam Glankoff Collection in New York, which was promised $10,000 toward the conservation of works on paper by Mr. Glankoff, a painter. Ms. Snyder said she had been led to expect that the grant money would be paid by the end of spring; other recipients interviewed said they had expected their money in the summer.

In June, she said, when the number was still connected, “no one returned my calls.”

“Then months later,” she added, “I got no response from a certified letter. Mr. Miller was clearly missing in action.”

Miller says he suffered “a serious accident” in 2009 that prevented him from finishing the Foundation’s 2009 pending business, and took an interview with the Times while wearing a neck brace.

Some of the Foundation’s grantees have also expressed criticism of Mr. Miller for using the Foundation’s money to amass a collection (all owned by the Foundation and in its name) of 2500 contemporary drawings. Miller defended these actions to the Times, saying that the Foundation’s collection of contemporary drawings was more important to the Foundation’s work than the grants program.

Regardless, if the Judith Rothschild Foundation goes under, it will be a serious loss to arts organizations across the country. Although of late the grants this foundation awarded were typically in the $5,000 – $10,000 range, these sums of money were enough to make a serious contribution to exhibition budgets, indeed to make many of these exhibitions possible, given that the type of artists Rothschild favored wouldn’t typically have a big-budget show to begin with. Here’s hoping that Miller gets his act together quickly so that the Rothschild Foundation can continue on in some capacity. The Foundation’s mission, though narrow in scope, is more important today than ever.

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for Artforum.com and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.