Artists Miffed Over Rothschild Foundation’s Missing Grant Money

Robin Pogrebin

The Judith Rothschild Foundation has been one of those small grant-making organizations that can make a big difference to art.

That is what is being said by arts groups that expected to receive grants of $4,000 to $10,000 from the foundation, which was founded largely to encourage interest in under-recognized American painters, sculptors and photographers who died from 1976 to 2008. Now the foundation, established 15 years ago under the terms of the will of the abstract painter Judith Rothschild — who died in 1993 — has defaulted on all 17 of its 2009 grants to artists’ estates and arts organizations, according to several of the recipients, a number of whom have filed complaints with the New York State attorney general’s office.

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,, 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.”

Among the other grantees are the Drawing Center in New York; the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.; the estate of Emilio Cruz in New York; the Delaware Art Museum; and the Orange County Museum of Art in California.

On Monday several of the grantees said they had received a letter of apology from Mr. Miller.

“Unfortunately, in the last quarter of the year I suffered a serious accident and have been unable to finish all of the business pending in 2009, including the cutting and posting of the grant checks,” the letter said. “It is my first priority to send you the monies granted to you from our jury as expeditiously as we are able. You may expect payment in full of the grant award in the first part of this year.”

The letter had a Pennsylvania return address but gave no phone number. On Tuesday Mr. Miller answered the door at that address in suburban Philadelphia — his home — wearing a neck brace. He told a reporter that he had broken his neck in a fall last autumn and spent “at least a month” in the hospital. He added that the 2009 grants would be paid within the next 30 days.

“This is the first time in 15 years we have been late for a payment,” Mr. Miller, 61, said in an interview in his art-filled living room. “These people are getting their checks within the next 30 days. If I have to mortgage this house, I will do it.”

Natalie Edgar, the director of the Philip Pavia Trust in New York, which had been awarded $7,000 toward a book about the works of Mr. Pavia, a sculptor, was one of those who filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office. (The office confirmed that it had received complaints and was reviewing the matter.)

Ms. Edgar wrote in her complaint that she was particularly troubled by the fact that even as the foundation was failing to pay out its grants, the Museum of Modern Art, where Mr. Miller has been a trustee since 2003, presented an exhibition of 354 works from a collection of about 2,500 by 650 artists that was amassed by Mr. Miller on behalf of the foundation from 2003 to 2005. The show, “Compass in Hand: Selections From the Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection,” opened last April and closed on Jan. 4. It was the first public display of the collection, which experts estimated to be worth about $30 million in 2005.

“The logic is simple,” she said in her complaint. “Harvey Shipley Miller had been spending foundation assets on a shopping spree to buy 2,500 drawings of emerging artists — the cost would be in the multimillions of dollars.”

“His shopping spree opposes the guidelines of the foundation,” she added.

Mr. Miller rejected that accusation. “The point of the foundation is to bring the work to a broad public audience,” he said. “They didn’t understand that we were not solely a granting organization.”

“Grants are the least important thing we do,” he added in a later telephone interview.

According to the foundation’s 2007 tax forms, the most recent that are publicly available, it ended that year with $13.8 million in total assets, $9.5 million of which was in art and about $4 million in other property. About $250,000 was in cash or other liquid assets.

In his letter Mr. Miller noted that Elizabeth Slater, the senior vice president for the grants program, was “laid off last spring due to our more limited available financial resources.” Calls to Ms. Slater’s Minneapolis home were unreturned, and e-mail messages to an address she had used in the past got this automated response: “Hello, I am unavailable to read your message at this time.”

On its Web site, the foundation says it “will not be accepting proposals in 2009 for next year’s award cycle.”

“As provided in Judith Rothschild’s will,” it continues, “eligibility required the artist to have died after Sept. 12, 1976, and before March 7, 2008 (15 years before the date of her will and 15 years after her death).” It is not clear when this notice was posted and whether the announcement is related to the foundation’s payout of the 2009 grants.

It goes on: “Because of last year’s closing of the eligibility window, the Judith Rothschild Foundation will spend the upcoming grant cycle evaluating the most effective way to refocus the activities of the Grant Program in order to best support those eligible artists remaining within this now closed pool and to carry out the mission of the foundation in accordance with the terms of Rothschild’s will.” There is no additional explanation as to why the end of the period stipulated by Ms. Rothschild’s will would prompt such a re-evaluation.

Several of the grantees say the foundation could have preserved good will if it had been up front about what was going on. Anita Shapolsky, who has a gallery in Manhattan and was granted $5,000 for a monograph on the painter Ernest Briggs, said: “I can’t be angry. But if they haven’t got the money, at least they could have said that.”

Mr. Miller said that he was too badly injured to contact the grantees, and that his many years of service should count for something. “I devoted my life to helping arts institutions for free,” he said. “My life has been the arts and helping artists.”

Stephanie Strom and Jon Hurdle contributed reporting.