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Hello, Ford Foundation? Ludwig van . . .

By Theodore F. WolffTheodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic. / November 7, 1983



Were Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or Beethoven alive today, they would petition public or private foundations for support rather than their original papal, royal, or aristocratic patrons.

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Such support might come to them in unfamiliar ways, but its impact would closely parallel that of more traditional forms of patronage: Each would receive , upon verification of talent and approval of project, at least some degree of funding for what he intended to do. Each could, as a result, complete works that otherwise might be deemed impractical or too expensive.

Foundations also help creative individuals of lesser magnitude, as well as institutions devoted to the arts. Almost every American museum has received foundation support in mounting exhibitions, buying works of art, sponsoring lectures or visits by scholars or artists, or funding research. Help has also been extended to smaller and less formal organizations trying to bring art into inner-city areas, and to aid avant-garde artists with projects that otherwise might never see the light of day.

Federal agency and private foundation support can be petitioned for, or come largely by surprise. The National Endowment for the Arts functions on one level as a huge central agency screening and evaluating requests for help from every possible type of artistic enterprise or organization and, on another level, as a reasonably objective judge dispensing aid where it sees the most quality and need.

The MacArthur Foundation, on the other hand, accepts no direct applications, but depends upon ''talent scouts'' for recommendations. Those recommended are then subjected to a thorough investigation, in which every attempt is made to contact everyone who might shed light on the recommendee's qualifications. The winners - and they are not limited to the arts - are then awarded large sums of money over a period of several years with absolutely no strings attached.

The Asian Cultural Council has a more specialized purpose. Established in 1963 as the Asian Cultural Program of the JDR 3rd Fund, and reorganized in 1980 as an independent foundation under its present name, it seeks to develop a direct personal approach to Asian-American exchanges in the visual and performing arts. Among its prime objectives: to facilitate the exchange of American and Asian artists, and to promote exhibitions of Asian art in the United States and American art in Asia.

Cultural institutions both here and in Asia have received grants to mount special exhibitions, sponsor symposiums, publish scholarly books and journals on art, distribute slides and illustrated material, train curators, prepare exhibition catalogs - and to do numerous other projects. And individual artists have been given the opportunity to travel, to exhibit and perform abroad, to do research, and to teach.

Receiving a Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Grant for study, work, or travel has been the goal of countless artists for several decades, and was, in fact, almost the only form of outside help available to anyone in the arts during the 1940s and '50s. Guggenheim grants have been awarded to many of America's outstanding artists, some of whom had their first taste of European or Asian culture while traveling on a grant.

Applications are open to all, but are carefully screened with the help of leaders in the various fields covered by the grants. These are awarded annually, and they are generally sufficient to permit those who receive them to devote the better part of a year to special projects or advanced research.

Foundations, of course, are not the only answer to the economic needs of artists and the art community. But they do help. It would be correct, in fact, to say that without agency, foundation, or corporate support, some of the art and many of the major art exhibitions Americans now enjoy would not exist.