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An Update On The Frankenthaler Foundation

February 7, 2024
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

In November 2023, some drama within the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation was made public through a lawsuit brought by one of its former board members. And now, we have one of the first updates in the story since it broke. Not only has a motion to dismiss failed, but we now have slightly more information on the wrongdoing seemingly perpetrated by members of the current board.

When Frederick Iseman filed the initial complaint to the New York State Supreme Court late last year, he presented a list of grievances against the current board members. Among the broader complaints launched against the board is that there are supposedly plans to sell off the Frankenthaler paintings in the Foundation’s possession and close the organization by 2030. However, Iseman also has specific details on the dealings of individual board members. Michael Hecht, for example, is a prominent New York accountant who Iseman accuses of bringing in his own accounting firms to do work for the Foundation, constituting a massive conflict of interest. Lise Motherwell, Frankenthaler’s stepdaughter, is accused of using the Foundation’s name and prestige to promote herself as a curator despite lacking credentials or experience. However, the newest information on the defendants is that concerning Clifford Ross.

Iseman claims that Ross, also a nephew of the artist, used his position in the Frankenthaler Foundation to run a sort of pay-for-play scheme, or as the amended complaint calls it, a “‘pay-for-display’ machine”. The initial suit alleged that Ross had used his position within the Foundation to award grants and large donations to museums and cultural organizations in exchange for displaying his own artwork. However, the amended complaint goes into further detail, giving us specific institutions with which Ross allegedly had “undisclosed ties”, a rough dollar amount of how much money went to these organizations, and the favors Ross received. For example, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Parrish Art Museum received $41,000 and $55,000, respectively, in exchange for those museums putting on solo exhibitions of Ross’s work. He also allegedly used the Frankenthaler Foundation’s money to appropriate $268,000 to donate to Studio in a School in order to secure a position as a visiting artist. Meanwhile, the Foundation approved $550,000 for the American Academy in Rome in exchange for an arts residency. Ross is also accused of organizing donations of $260,000 to The Brooklyn Rail art journal, $70,000 to Bomb Magazine, and $500,000 to the New York Public Library to secure publicity for his career, including interviews and articles. The newly submitted complaint includes a flowchart showing precisely where Foundation money allegedly went and the services rendered in exchange.

Iseman’s amended complaint seems to have come at the most opportune time. Just hours after submitting it to the courts, the Frankenthaler Foundation filed a motion to dismiss. However, since the motion to dismiss was for the original lawsuit, the Foundation must redo all the paperwork and file a separate motion for the new, amended suit. Iseman is asking for the dismissal of the current board and to be reinstated as the Foundation’s director. The Foundation has responded to the amended complaint by saying that it “demonstrates [Iseman’s] true character and why he was unsuitable to continue serving as a Director of the Foundation.”