04/02/2013 04:35 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Artists for Artists

Fifty years. Nine hundred artists. Two thousand grants. At its most succinct, this is the story of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA), the unique and timeless organization established by Jasper Johns and John Cage in 1963. In the fifty years since the Foundation's inception, visual artists -- both celebrated and emerging -- have contributed work and funds totaling millions of dollars. Nine hundred artists have given in this way. Through nomination and application processes, the funds are then awarded to artists and arts organizations. Some grants support artists and their projects, some address outstanding individual needs, some salute the achievements of major creators. Over fifty years, 2,000 creators of dance, music, performance, visual arts and poetry have received FCA grants.

Trisha Brown needed a grant, she wrote in 1971, because "I am looking forward to joy and dancing in '72." This year, Trisha became the recipient of the Foundation's first Robert Rauschenberg Award, awarded for her lifetime of joy and dancing, and for giving joy and dancing to the world. In Trisha's case -- and in so many others -- the work of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts simply inspires. Created by artists for the support and celebration of artists, it is a philanthropy like no other I know. It rallies creative energy and inventiveness to advance creative energy and inventiveness. It generates kinship among artists, creative alliances, grace in giving, goodwill, generosity. In a world -- and especially in this time -- of competition and pridefulness and creative singularity, such organized outreaching by artists to artists is, simply, inspired. I am so glad to be one of the Foundation's directors. I am especially privileged since I am not an artist, as almost all the directors are and have been over the Foundation's fifty years. Jasper Johns has been the Chairman of the Board for fifty years, driving the institution's purposes as boldly today as he did in 1963.

Many think that the whole idea of artist-driven benefit exhibitions, in which worthy causes and institutions are helped by visual artists who contribute work for sale, was invented by the Foundation in 1963. Today, this is a known way to raise funds if you are a non-profit in need (as all non-profits are). Artists are generous; exhibitions are lively; benefactors buy work and help good causes all at the same time. But when Jasper Johns rounded up his friends in 1963 to make a benefit of this kind, it was an audacious idea with an audacious purpose. Jasper and Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage believed that Merce Cunningham and his dancers should have a New York recital, a Broadway show of their work. When they discovered that it would cost $30,000 for a week's run in the heart of the city, Johns and Cage were undeterred. They asked their friends to help.

Sixty-seven artists contributed works to the original exhibition: de Kooning, Rivers, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Kelly, Stella among them. Calvin Tomkins described the project in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town." He said that it might "...stand as a historic watershed in the flow of money to artists... an epochal new development in foundation-funding." His words were themselves predictive and historic, as it turned out. The Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts exhibited and endured. It changed its name to the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2004, acknowledging the wide and widening forms of art that it had been supporting all those years. Its grantees make up a legendary list -- the immortals of American art -- making in every discipline, every dimension of this country's recent half-century of cultural life.

Composer Steve Reich writes, "When I was composing... Drumming... in 1970, I barely had the money to buy the drums." When a check arrived "out of the blue" from the Foundation, "...there was enough money for the marimbas with some to spare." Furthermore, Reich writes, "I knew this was a foundation supported by great artists... so it meant a good deal more to me than government or corporate support." The sentiments are echoed over and over by artists whose work has been acknowledged, applauded, and actually funded by other artists. Their peers became their patrons. In this fiftieth year, FCA has produced a book, Artists for Artists, in which the story is chronicled. FCA is also holding its first gala to commemorate the birthday and to claim the next fifty years of artists for artists.

What I admire most about FCA is this basic fact that artists see, select, and support other artists. There is no philanthropic hierarchy; there is little (but excellent) staff and even less protocol. But there is passion, and I love that, too. The nominating letters are fierce in their descriptions and defense of artists -- perhaps especially so when the nominees are under appreciated, or extremely bold, or about to launch, or subject to scorn in some circles. I think artists know these cases best and read the signs when others can't as yet. And I love the fact that there is this community, this collaboration, of art-makers. As Cunningham said at the very start about himself and other performing artists, "We are all in the same boat."

It is my dream that the Foundation for Contemporary Arts will become better known, that it will attract more and more dollars for artists, and that it will continue to find the makers and support their dreams for another half-century. To learn more, I hope you will open