City Hall

How Joel Wachs built a pop art empire

On my KCRW segment today, host Steve Chiotakis asked me what becomes of ex-mayors. We chatted a bit about what Jim Hahn and Richard Riordan are doing, and speculated on the future of Antonio Villaraiogsa. But I don't think any politician who moved on from Los Angeles City Hall in recent times has invented a new life for himself (or herself) more successfully than Joel Wachs. The former city councilman from the Valley has been the president of the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York for more than a decade now. He gets to give away the artist's money and keep Warhol's legacy alive. A feature in Blouin ArtInfo says he has become a big deal in the art world, and a game-changer. Excerpt:

Short, broad-shouldered, and quicker to smile than most art world power brokers, Wachs looks a decade younger than his 74 years. Since taking over the foundation in 2001, he has done more than give away Warhol’s money, preserve his legacy, and sit in his chairs. As the only former politician at the helm of a major art foundation, he takes a clear-eyed, unsentimental approach. He is not so quietly redefining the way a rapidly growing sector in cultural philanthropy, comprised of single-artist organizations, functions.

In his will Warhol specified that nearly all his assets, including thousands of paintings now worth billions of dollars, should go “to a foundation to be created to support the visual arts.” The barebones instructions—no strings, no elaboration—leave lots of room for interpretation. And Wachs has not been shy about seizing attendant opportunities.

Under Wachs’s leadership, the foundation has expanded its licensing program at an unprecedented rate, lending Warhol’s name and artwork to products as varied as Nars makeup, a banana-shaped body pillow, and real Campbell’s soup cans. The capitalist move—which some commentators criticized as disrespectful to Warhol’s legacy—has led to approximately $3 million being contributed each year to the foundation’s $225 million endowment. But the most radical and influential changes have come in the last two years.

“Joel has this idea of really examining the mission in an almost philosophical way,” says artist Jane Hammond, who has served on the foundation’s board for eight years. Two years ago Wachs set up a subcommittee charged with considering the long-term future of the organization. The panel sought to determine “who is really benefiting most from our activities” and to have “a discussion beyond simply ‘Who are we giving money to this year?’  ” Hammond recalls.

These conversations ultimately resulted in two of the foundation’s boldest moves. First came its dissolution of the Warhol Foundation’s authentication committee in October 2011, a decision that stunned the art world. The foundation had spent millions of dollars defending itself against lawsuits brought by disgruntled collectors who did not like the board’s decisions, Wachs explains. “We got tired of spending grant money on lawyers for a service that really only benefited wealthy collectors.” Within a year, the Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring estates followed suit....

Last fall, when public arts funding was at a historic low point, the Warhol Foundation raised eyebrows yet again, announcing it would immediately sell off its entire art collection, including thousands of screen prints, Polaroids, and a few paintings....The first live sale, held at Christie’s New York last November, featured 354 lots and brought in $17 million. The auction house will hold four more online sales before the end of this year. In all, the Warhol Foundation collection is expected to yield at least $100 million.

More over there.

Photo of Wachs by Kristine Larsen

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