This morning, the New York Times has a story on how, in the late 50s and 60s, the Ford Foundation became, essentially, a central patron of creative work for struggling artists in the U.S. The story quotes from letters James Baldwin wrote to the foundation, asking for funds to help him keep writing, and then goes on to explain that he used the money he was awarded to support work on Another Country:
It was 1959, six years before Congress created national endowments for the arts and humanities to support struggling artists and cultural institutions. For Baldwin, who was straining to finish a novel and pay personal debts, the place to turn for cash was neither the government nor any literary agent but to a relatively obscure foundation official named W. McNeil Lowry. Mr. Lowry had the last word in deciding which artists, writers and performers would receive grants from the Ford Foundation, the richest private source of cultural largess at the time. This month letters to and from Mr. Lowry . . . were opened to researchers at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.
There’s nothing unusual anymore about getting a grant to make art, but the focus on the personal, informal-sounding letters asking for a gift of money struck a chord, mostly because my friend Rush Whitacre, at artist in Brooklyn who plans to move home to Ohio soon, has been writing exactly the same kind of letters to unsuspecting potential patrons over the past few months. Currently, he’s writing to Jerry Bruckheimer, the movie mogul, asking Mr. Bruckheimer to please pay off Rush’s college debt in exchange for the gift of Rush’s best painting, an enormous canvas of sunflowers inspired by Van Gogh. (This letters project was also inspired by Van Gogh’s letters to his own patron, his brother Theo.) Most artists I know, like Rush, have little money to support their work, and—like Rush, who works as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—have other jobs to pay the bills, leaving little time left to actually create art. Rush has never met Mr. Bruckheimer, and undoubtedly never will, but this doesn’t stop him from writing a daily letter—as well as a poem—imploring the producer to dip into his exceedingly deep pockets and become Rush’s patron.
Rush’s audacity never fails to amuse me—especially because it’s almost always so diligent and disciplined. He’s writing a letter to Mr. Bruckheimer every day, for a month, with the same request for support. With variations in his request for a response—sometimes he simply asks for an interview or an acknowledgement that the recipient knows Rush exists—he has been writing these letters for months, first to Taylor Swift (a collection of letters describing what it was like getting his degree in art at Ohio University and University of Cincinnati) and then a similar set to Bill Murray. When he finished his letters to Taylor Swift (a year-long effort, rather than just a month, as he’s doing now), he self-published them, which he intends to do with all of his letters, as a way of documenting what it’s like to be a young, unknown painter. So far, none of Rush’s letters have produced a desired response—or any response, for that matter—and probably haven’t even been read by the intended recipient, but that doesn’t stop him from writing yet another one every day. That is, when he isn’t drafting his fantasy novel on his cell phone during his work breaks in the American wing at the Metropolitan.
If Mr. Bruckheimer were to see Whitacre’s painting of sunflowers, with almost exactly the same dimensions as Picasso’s Guernica, he might give some thought to Rush’s request: it’s a confidently and skillfully rendered image that produces an amazing sensation of depth, and is so large that at first you aren’t sure what you’re seeing. The flowers are so large you could step into the painting and curl up inside one of them quite comfortably. He keeps the painting in a huge garage, formerly used by his father to house an RV, tractors and other equipment on the Whitacre acreage in Beverly, Ohio. It’s stored there along with dozens of other canvases, finished and unfinished, and is a work space dramatically different from the tiny apartment Rush has been sharing since last year with two other artists in Brooklyn. It’s the sort of space Rush needs, and he hopes to return this summer to Ohio for a teaching job that will enable him to get back into his original studio. Rush is never at a loss for energy and good humor and his letters always make me grin and think, who else would have the nerve to do this? The way he prices his work, as if to say—this is how much it’s worth; take it or leave it—also brings this question to mind. Here’s one of the first letters this month to Bruckheimer:
So, again, my name is Rush Whitacre and I am going to take a moment to refresh your memory from yesterday when I wrote you the first time and discussed with you my reasons for writing. I am in the middle of writing my letters project, and anything I write or get in a response from you will be published in book form eventually. Also, as part of this project, I’m asking you for an interview, and then I will be sending you an idea that you can then decide whether you would like to endorse or ignore. I do want to say that I am NOT a con man in any way, just an artist who is newly graduated with his master’s degree and very hungry to make art, but there is just one problem, and that is I have such enormous loans that I can’t even save any money to retire let alone to be able to make art. This is where you can really help a guy like me.
I am offering to you one of favorite works of art, my sunflower painting called Lifecycle IVb. It measures 11 feet by 24 feet, and it shows the image of sunflowers in full bloom. This painting has been on display once, at the Parkersburg Art Center, and was then priced at $125,000, which would enable me to clear around $90,000, after taxes—what I need to erase my debt. I am sure you would have a place big enough to hang it, or else you might be able to donate it to a museum where you could get a tax write-off for the value of the painting. Anyway, I hope you will this offer, and I thank you for your time.