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On Assets and Values

A white man on a suit sitting on a table in a board room
Michael Hermann, Photo by James J Williams III.

For our 40th anniversary, Michael Dayton Hermann, Director of Licensing, Marketing, and Sales at the Andy Warhol Foundation, wrote an essay about the importance of the artist’s legacy.

Visual art is an essential part of humanity which enables us to investigate the complexities of the human condition in a multitude of ways. Artists are our dreamers, truth-tellers, and soothsayers with endless imaginations. The best art has a universality that transcends space and time, allowing for infinite discovery. Such inspiring works engage our senses, awaken our souls, and encourage us to wrestle with questions we often did not think to ask ourselves. There is no understanding of history without art history. Yet some artists, like Warhol, transcend chronological history with works that speak eloquently of the moment they were created while remaining relevant, vibrant, and vital today.

As the designated steward of Andy Warhol’s legacy, The Andy Warhol Foundation has engaged in numerous endeavors to ensure a deeper understanding and appreciation of Warhol’s artistic and cultural influence including co-founding the Andy Warhol Museum, funding catalogues raisonnés, and donating more than 50,000 works to 322 cultural institutions worldwide. Moreover, as the owner of the copyrights to works of art created during Warhol’s lifetime, the Foundation works to ensure Warhol’s artwork is accessible and used widely to celebrate the artist’s forward-thinking spirit. While Andy Warhol’s continued influence on contemporary culture speaks volumes about his artistic contributions, the fact that Warhol chose for nearly all the assets of his estate to be used to establish a charitable foundation whose mission is the advancement of the visual arts, speaks volumes about his values.

It was clearly not lost on Warhol that visual art and freedom of expression are fundamental to an open and enlightened society.

Michael Dayton Hermann

As an artist, my commitment to freedom of expression, amplifying marginalized voices, and attainment of new knowledge is why I have dedicated over two decades to the legacy of Andy Warhol. Initially a skeptic because of his celebrity, I have come to recognize that Warhol’s powerful artwork, commitment to experimental practices, and his journey as a gay son of impoverished immigrants continue to have a profound influence on culture. This impact and corresponding values serve as a north star for me and the foundation he established.

I can think of few artists other than Warhol whose work remains a fountain of discovery and subject of reexamination for each generation that follows. Far from telling us what to think, Warhol’s work asks something of his viewers. It is this democratic generosity which is his strength and stands in contrast to the hyper-polarized, often dogmatic discourse so prevalent today. It asks us to actively engage, not passively be entertained. It asks us to think, not blindly applaud. It commands our focus without screaming for attention. This is the power of great art and is the antidote to hyperbolic echo chambers, diminished attention spans, and obsessive scrolling that have become commonplace. Warhol, more than most, stops us in our tracks and makes us look.

Warhol’s work is often referred to as a “mirror,” allowing viewers to examine society and their place in it. He understood nuance and celebrated the complexities of our society. His paintings of Elvis are as heteronormative as they are homoerotic. His candy-colored Marilyns are portraits of our obsession with celebrity as much as they are macabre reminders of the destructive costs that often come along with such a life. His eight-hour silent film Empire captivates the viewer while telling us less about New York City or the building than our unique relationships to it. By his own account, his storied studio, the Factory, was not a place where people came to see him but a place where people from all walks of life went because “they were interested in seeing each other.” He was a brave non-conformist unwilling to be defined by convention, rejection, or failure. Instead of adapting to others’ expectations, he worked to expand established social circles to include outsiders like him along with other marginalized groups. He was able to bend the arc of culture not by proselytizing, condemning, litigating, or cancelling but through engagement. Warhol’s live-and-let-live ethos, insatiable curiosity, and provocative works are disarming, if not subversive, in their power to engage us.

While the challenges in stewarding an artist’s legacy are ever-evolving, these values, and others, have long informed my work at The Andy Warhol Foundation. When engaging with the benefits, protections, and limits of copyright, the Foundation is guided by its values grounded in public benefit, not a narrow self-interest.

Recognising its founder’s unique journey from outsider to successful artist, the Foundation has always placed visual art and artists at the center of its considerations, especially underrepresented practitioners.

Michael Dayton Hermann

Freedom of expression can only be free if artists also have the necessary space to experiment and room to fail. This freedom comes partly from the grit and determination of an artist but also requires the grace of an open-minded public. Regrettably, the normalization of intolerance and resulting pressure to conform in much of our society today often results in the silencing of voices and stifling of creativity. The Andy Warhol Foundation has long been a champion of freedom of artistic expression, and it will continue to reject efforts to thwart the expression of new ideas. The intellectual property controlled by the Foundation is a valuable asset which contributes generously to its endowment from which it distributes grants. However, while such financial wealth is limited, it is important to recognize that values and ideas which uplift humanity are an unlimited treasure.

Today, after distributing nearly $300M in cash grants supporting thousands of artists and non-profit arts organizations, Andy Warhol’s contribution to the power of visual art, risk-taking, and experimentation may be as evident in the work of the Foundation he established as it is in the enduring work he left behind. Yet, Warhol’s gift to the world is not just the inspiring, timeless art he created or the benevolence of his Foundation but also the permission he gave us to forge our own paths, be truer versions of ourselves, and to boldly experiment. The true power of visual art is unleashed only when artists have no doubt in their right to create work that is challenging, complex, thought-provoking, and even controversial at times. Our world would have been poorer were it not for Warhol’s willingness to bravely share his unique vision. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon us all to ensure that visual art and freedom of expression are held up as pillars of our society and that we celebrate artists who, like Warhol, are willing to challenge convention.