A successful artist’s work nearly always survives beyond the artist’s death—but how do you actively preserve, and perpetuate their ideas? Take pioneering rule breaker Robert Rauschenberg, whose artworks from the 1950s through to the early 2000s questioned the very meaning of art. Like the blank canvases he called his White Paintings (which were said to have inspired fellow Black Mountain College alumnus and close friend John Cage’s silent musical score, 4’33”), his collages made from Moroccan trash (the ones he didn’t sell he threw into a river), his stuffed goat or his blank piece of paper with the self-explanatory title Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), an artwork said to have taken him one month and 40 erasers to complete. When Rauschenberg died in 2008, leaving behind him a legacy that existed not just in museums but in people’s inspiration, the question was, how do you caretake a vision once the visionary is gone? How do you ensure that ideas live, breathe and continue to evolve?
The task was entrusted to a woman named Christy MacLear, who, as head of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, is dedicated to keeping not just the work but the ideals of Robert Rauschenberg alive. “What we do is defined singularly by the values that we have defined, and those values were defined by the people who were closest to Bob,” says MacLear. “So it’s not just that we give grants, it’s that we give grants to things that are fearless, that are creative problem-solving, that are global-minded and interested in peacekeeping across borders. We will fund projects that may fail because we are funding risk-seeking or catalytic types of moments in an artist’s career.”
The foundation provides a sanctuary where artists can push the boundaries of their own vision, à la Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg’s former home and studio on Captiva Island off the coast of Fort Myers, Florida, is now a 20-acre compound accepting 10 new artists every five weeks from varying geographies and disciplines. And the rest is up to them. “They get to come in, they get a house, they get a studio or a dance studio or a sound studio and they get to work on their artistic practice,” says MacLear. “We don’t expect anything to come out of it and we don’t ask them to give us anything in return. What we find is that most artists come in and with that degree of liberty, they actually expand their artistic disciplines. We find that with that open space for their creative practice, they interact and try something entirely new.”
Performance artist Laurie Anderson is an alumnus—as are many emerging artists. Some go on to become well known for their art, some don’t. While on Captiva, they are all rewarded equally, though. Rewarded for being risk takers and fulfilling the foundation’s goal of seeding new generations of rule breakers—artists after Rauschenberg’s own heart.