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Frankenthaler Foundation Hit With A Lawsuit

November 17, 2023
The artist Helen Frankenthaler receiving the National Medal of Arts, standing with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

Helen Frankenthaler receiving the National Medal of Arts

Many prominent twentieth-century artists wanted to ensure that the success they earned through lifetimes could go on to support other artists in the future. That is why many foundations and other groups named after such artists are set up with the artists’ money to provide education and funding to ensure their legacy lives on. These foundations also tend to be the authorities on the work of their namesakes, editing and publishing the artist’s catalogue raisonné and authenticating newly-discovered works. Of course, protecting an artist’s legacy can be difficult work, which is why some foundations sometimes find themselves in legal trouble. Previously, I’ve written about the Andy Warhol Foundation and their efforts to defend their licensing of a Warhol print that used a photographer’s work as its basis. I’ve also covered the Joan Mitchell Foundation and its spat with Louis Vuitton. Now, a lawsuit is being brought against a different foundation, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. Its former president is suing over his improper dismissal and launching some pretty interesting accusations at the current board members.

Frederick Iseman is Helen Frankenthaler’s nephew. On top of his role as chairman and CEO of CI Capital Partners, he served as the foundation president for twelve years, with his tenure ending this past May. In a lawsuit filed to the New York State Supreme Court on November 8th, Iseman accuses the Foundation’s board members, some of whom are family members, of using Frankenthaler‘s legacy and the Foundation to benefit themselves personally and professionally. One of the most damning accusations regards Iseman’s cousin, Frankenthaler’s nephew Clifford Ross. Ross is an artist primarily known as a photographer but also uses other media. Iseman claims that as a member of the Frankenthaler Foundation board, Ross operated a sort of pay-for-play system where he would issue grants from the Foundation in exchange for the recipients agreeing to exhibit his work. Iseman described it as “trading the Foundation’s grant-giving capacity in exchange for exhibitions of his own otherwise unremarkable artwork and to generate publicity for his own career.” Then there is Michael Hecht, who, according to Iseman’s lawsuit, brought in several accounting firms he runs for foundation business. He also uses foundation funds to donate to other organizations for which he sits on the board. In his litany of transgressions, Iseman also includes a lack of action against the Foundation’s executive director, Elizabeth Smith. He claims that Smith has not secured a major Frankenthaler exhibition in her entire tenure as director and is paid far above what people in similar positions earn. The fact that the named board members have not taken action about this predicament only adds to the relaxed attitude the defendants seem to have about running a foundation in the name of one of the greatest twentieth-century American artists.

If there’s one claim in Iseman’s lawsuit that might be a little frivolous, it’s his accusations against Frankenthaler’s stepdaughter, Lise Motherwell, specifically her lack of experience organizing museum exhibitions. Her position at the Foundation made her responsible for collaborating with major museums to exhibit Frankenthaler’s work alongside those of comparable artists. However, due to her inexperience, Iseman claims that she would often organize exhibitions at smaller regional or local museums that, in his view, lacked the prestige befitting an exhibition featuring paintings by Frankenthaler. Because god forbid, we let Frankenthaler paintings get shipped off to cultural backwaters like *gasp* Provincetown, Massachusetts. Yes, people in charge of organizing exhibitions of works by major artists should have experience in doing so. Iseman’s suit seems to imply that Motherwell being Helen Frankenthaler’s stepdaughter (as well as Robert Motherwell’s daughter) got her a position on the Foundation’s board. Yet the way Iseman discusses Motherwell’s actions comes across as a little elitist, as if people outside major cities with great cultural institutions are not allowed access to important post-war art. However, that should not detract from the serious allegations Iseman details in his complaint. Iseman described the board members’ irresponsibility as “grabstract expressionism”.

As for Iseman’s departure from the Foundation board, he claims he was ousted as president after opposing plans to close and liquidate the Foundation by 2030. Iseman alleges this is being done “presumably as part of a plan to cover their own tracks”. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s assets are estimated at around $1 billion. Through this legal action, Iseman seeks to have himself reinstated as the Foundation president and remove Ross, Motherwell, and Hecht from the board. According to the lawsuit, his dismissal violated not only the Foundation’s bylaws but the laws of New York. These laws stipulate that the officers of a nonprofit organization cannot force out its director without cause because of a disagreement. Furthermore, he is calling for the release of the Foundation’s financial records to see if there was any embezzlement or mismanagement by the other board members. He also seeks a complete check of the Foundation’s inventory to ensure that no works are sold while the lawsuit progresses. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation has called the lawsuit “ baseless accusations and litigation tactics”.

Disagreements between an artist’s family members and their estate or foundation happen more often than expected. For example, Mark Rothko’s children Kate and Christopher were engaged in a legal battle with the executors of their father’s estate, accusing them of planning to sell off many of Mark Rothko’s paintings at below market value, with the buyer in mind being the Marlborough Gallery, who used to represent Rothko. The three executors of the estate initially succeeded in selling about a hundred Rothko paintings for $1.8 million, which the Marlborough Gallery agreed to pay over twelve years with no interest. The case spent four years before the courts, eventually ruling in favor of Kate and Christopher Rothko. According to the court, the estate’s executors had acted inappropriately, with two of them having conflicts of interest regarding the sale to the Marlborough Gallery. Therefore, all contracts between the Marlborough Gallery and the Rothko estate were declared null and void. The executors and Marlborough’s owner, Frank Lloyd, had to pay $9 million to the children.

When it comes to legal disputes involving an artist’s estate or foundation, much of it comes down to the artist’s intent. Often, in a foundation’s founding documents, a particular artist might specify the organization’s purpose and what its future leadership can and cannot do with the art they possess. For example, as mentioned earlier, the Joan Mitchell Foundation sent cease-and-desist letters to Louis Vuitton after they had featured Mitchell’s work in the background of an advertisement campaign. This expressly went against the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s rules, which have always explicitly stated that Mitchell’s paintings can only be used for exhibitions and educational purposes, never for commercial purposes. So, suppose Frederick Iseman can prove that the other board members were indeed considering closing the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and liquidating its assets. In that case, the state of New York will likely rule in his favor. This is because doing so, according to the suit, “would not only destroy the market value of Frankenthaler’s work in direct violation of the Directors Defendants’ fiduciary duties to the Foundation, but would be overtly contrary to the Foundation’s mission, not to mention Frankenthaler’s own wishes before she died.” Whether or not the court will have the authority to dismiss the other board members and reinstate Iseman as president is not entirely clear at this time. However, with this being among family and with someone’s legacy on the line, I doubt a financial settlement will cover it all up. I’m sure we’ll all be very interested to see how this ends.