Patrick Lannan and the Lannan Foundation Today

Date July 1, 2009 at 10:00 PM


Categories Lodging & Travel


On March 4, 2009, (and in a follow up discussion on March 25, 2009), I had the opportunity to speak with J. Patrick Lannan, Jr., Executive Director of the Lannan Foundation, in the Conference Room at the organization’s center (313 Read Street).  I have been a fan and ardent supporter of the Lannan Foundation’s popular “Readings and Conversations” series since 1996, the date of the foundation’s relocating in Santa Fe.  I also had the opportunity of meeting Patrick Lannan when some of the Lannan speakers would visit my school to give readings and answer questions (and, most important, inspire budding writers) in conjunction with their public readings at the Lensic Theatre.  However, I never knew much of the back story of Patrick’s involvement with the foundation that bears his name nor did I know the breadth and depth of the programs that the organization has supported.

We began our talk with a discussion of the primary function and premise of the Lannan Foundation (LF).  The LF’s staff’s attitude towards the individuals and organizations with whom they work is that “They are the important ones; they are the heroes.  We are honored to support them.” *(N.B. All subsequent quotations were made by Patrick Lannan in our conversation unless otherwise noted.)* In a like manner, Patrick is “vigilant about not drifting into the charitable mindset” where the programs are “top down” and where the granting institution acts in a paternal and superior, perhaps even condescending, manner.  Patrick agrees with Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano who doesn’t appreciate the term “charity” and prefers to think of literary grants as “working with people in solidarity.”  Patrick believes that “I am lucky to be in the position I’m in and to be doing something I think is important for the past twenty-five years.”

Patrick Lannan also has a strong set of values with regard to how foundations should function.  He posits that “There has been an explosion in the number of foundations because there has been an explosion in the concentration of wealth.”  Patrick is careful never to see the LF as a “replacement for government or progressive politics.”  He informed me that there is “a federal regulation that all charitable institutions must spend 5% of their assets per year.”  This is what most organizations spend each year; Patrick believes this yearly minimum financial commitment should be raised.  Finally, while discussing the successes of post-World War II Europe, Patrick raised a concern that seems prescient in the perilous and uncharted waters of our current financial crisis:  “Capitalism is the survival of the strongest and needs strong regulations since without them and a strong progressive tax code the system necessarily leads to large concentrations of wealth” with all the attendant problems.

The LF has always been and continues to be a family-run organization.  In 1960, Patrick Lannan’s father—J. Patrick Lannan, Senior—founded the LF and headed the organization until his death in 1983; Patrick took over the reins of the LF in 1985 after a brief intra-family court fight to settle leadership questions.

Patrick Lannan, Senior, had long made it clear that he did not believe it was healthy to provide large inheritances to his survivors, so his entire estate was bequeathed to the LF in 1986.  Unlike his father who was self-educated, Patrick graduated from Georgetown University with a major in history and a minor in philosophy.  After considering a career in academia, Patrick Lannan entered banking and then moved on to a Chicago ad agency before being transferred to New York City.  From 1967-1972, he managed an answering service and paging business and then became involved in an investment business throughout the seventies.  Among his last endeavors prior to succeeding his father as Head of the Lannan Foundation were in commercial radio in Fresno, California, and in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Patrick, Senior, had established a salon-style art museum in Lake Worth, Florida (southwest of Palm Beach), with paintings everywhere on the walls a la The Barnes Museum.  According to Patrick, the Florida exhibition space was successful: “As much as anything other than money, the Palm Beach community embraced the museum.”  However, the LF Board of Directors made the decision in 1986 to move to Los Angeles, California, donating the Lake Worth Museum and over a thousand artifacts to Palm Beach Community College.

Patrick revealed that the move was primarily a re-location to “a more vibrant community.”  The LF continued to mount (and fund) major contemporary exhibitions from 1987 into the 1990’s.  However, Los Angeles’s sprawling nature worked against the success of the Museum:  “You can’t center anything in LA.  There were few visitors because the museum wasn’t near anything else [that would draw visitors].  As a result, not many people were seeing it [the collection].”  Ultimately, the LF Board made the decision to stop collecting art:  “It was an evolutionary decision that the continuance of contemporary art acquisitions, the mounting of art exhibitions and the foundation’s art lending program were no longer effective uses of resources.”  Furthermore, it was costing a great deal of money merely to “sit on” the collection.”  To address this situation, the LF virtually gave away to a consortium of major American museums a collection of over 1,200 contemporary pieces:  “The Art Institute of Chicago, the prime beneficiary, paid twenty cents on the dollar and got to choose what they wanted from our collection.  Other works went to contemporary art museums, including those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as to a number of university museums.”  At about this time, The LF Board made a commitment to establish social justice and indigenous peoples programs that would further expand the scope of the organization.

In 1997, the LF moved to Santa Fe (New Mexico).  Patrick states that “If the foundation had only its art and literary programs, it would probably have remained in Los Angeles.  But the Indigenous Peoples Program caught on.”  Patrick’s decision to purchase property on Read Street in the City Different seems inevitable when he informed me that “one-half of all Native Americans in the United States live within three hundred miles of Santa Fe.”

Furthermore, the Northern New Mexico community has been very receptive to the LF’s work with solid attendance at the organization’s art exhibits at its Read Street Galleries and its frequently sold out readings at the Lensic Theater:  “On our worst nights in Santa Fe, we draw more people than on our best nights in Los Angeles.”

In response to my queries about new and continued directions the ever-popular LF “Readings and Conversations” series may take in the future, Patrick Lannan discussed his desire to attract more young males to these events:  “I plan to invite Dave Zirin who recently authored a book A People’s History of Sports in the United States.”  In discussing Zirin, I learned that this same writer also composed a book on Muhammad Ali who had a “formative and inspiring” effect on Patrick.  (I also learned that Patrick has run marathons and his father was on the Kansas City Athletics Baseball Team Board of Directors when the club was being sold to Charles O. Finley who moved the club to Oakland.  Thus, the lie is again given to the tired dictum that a love of sports and a love of reading are incompatible.)

I also wanted to learn how participants were chosen to participate in the “Readings and Conversations” series and discovered that the process was “very open and mostly effective”:  “The work is done here in Santa Fe from suggestions from the Board, from literary contacts, from the LF Literary Committee, and from myself…Martha Frank and Jo Chapman have a strong voice within the organization.”  In other observations on the readings, Patrick is sorry “We missed Richard Yates” before he died.  As for idiosyncratic readings, Patrick recalls a reading at “The Blue Whale” (West Hollywood Design Center) in Los Angeles two days after the massive South California earthquake of 1992 :  “One of the American authors I most respect William Gaddis was booked, but he would not read that night.  Philosopher and writer  William Gass saved the day by providing a fulsome thirty to forty minute introduction that praised Gaddis as ‘one of America’s most important authors’” and by coaxing answers out of the taciturn, uncooperative main attraction.  Patrick Lannan took this evening with equanimity since, in a manner similar to the RTE Project to read Joyce’s Ulysses aloud, he would love to create a project in which Gaddis’s master work satire of American business JR is read aloud. Patrick was quite clear about his future plans for the continued support of authors:  “The Marfa (Texas) Residency Program will continue full bore while more fellowships will be provided for lesser known writers and those suffering from illness or financial need.”   Furthermore, the LF will continue to fund such projects as journalist and essayist Charles Bowden’s social justice investigations into the Southwest border drug traffic.

I mentioned to Patrick Lannan that in my preparation for this interview I encountered only one negative review of him, a New York Times piece that took the LF to task for betraying the original vision of his father to support contemporary artists and suggested that Patrick was in some sort of classic oedipal struggle with his father.  Patrick was not surprised with such a criticism:  When the LF began divesting itself of its major art collection, “There was a lot of anger, including from influential Los Angeles art critic Christopher Knight.”  However, the LF has never stopped supporting the plastic arts: “We haven’t left the art world.”  Equally important, the truth was that Patrick Lannan, Senior, “knew that he wanted to do something further with his money” and that he had a history of aiding literary artists: “His direct support saved Poetry Magazine in the 1950’s.”  Patrick also understands how the Freudian interpretation to his actions would arise:  “My father was a very powerful personality, and I have had dreams in which I question how dad would feel about a certain action.”  Ultimately, however, Patrick Lannan believes his father “would be proud of what we have done.”  His mid-1980’s organizational decisions and the resolution of the internal fight conflicts “united the family and ended the splinter group’s influence.”  Finally, Patrick is clear-eyed about the praise he and the LF receive:  “There will be praise for anyone who gives away money.”

In response to my question about work the LF does that might not be common knowledge to the public, Patrick informed me of certain projects and artists that the LF has worked with over time.  He discussed enthusiastically the organization’s support of extraordinary land arts projects, including Jim Turrell, the first visual artist to receive a MacArthur grant, and his work in progress, “Roden Crater” Observatory at Flagstaff (Arizona) of which Patrick is particularly sanguine.  The LF has been involved with this project for over fifteen years and has provided financial support for over a decade.  The LF has also aided Michael Heizer who has created a land art piece entitled Double Negative that is a 1,500 foot trench built in the Nevada desert and who is currently working on City complex in Hiko, Nevada, east of the Nevada Test Site, in which he employs reinforced concrete and steel in “an extraordinary exploration of the possibilities and meanings of positive and negative spaces” (“Michael Heizer” in ONE).  The LF has also made major commitments to Persian sculptor Siah Armanjami, the creator of the great (and controversial) piece Fallujah that the LF has gifted to the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) and who has also created “Art in the Park” poetry gardens, and to Thomas Joshua Cooper, a faculty member of the Glasgow (Scotland) School of Art and Design who uses a camera made in the 1890’s.

Support for such artists underscores Patrick’s belief in the “conjunction of contemporary art and politics” which for him is equated with values and progressivism and his continued interest in “culture, cultural diversity and the power of creative activity.”  Emblematic of this faith in the power of the artist to unsettle and to teach, Patrick praises the work of the late Joseph Beuys, a German artist and political activist, who championed the power and healing nature of art and whose controversial career embodies the healthy debate over the place and function of the artist in the contemporary world that is central to the LF’s vision.

Another “under the radar” project of the LF is the funding of litigation in support of the organization’s Indigenous Peoples constituents.  Projects funded include Eloise Cobell of the Blackfoot Nation and the massive Indian Law Trust Case where the Department of the Interior has been accused of mismanagement of individual trust beneficiaries.  If the Native American plaintiffs are successful, the LF will receive a portion of its financial investment in the case.  Employing program-related investments, LF has funded and won a lawsuit for the Oklahoman Ponca tribe against a polluting carbon plant.  Closer to home, LF has supported Picuris Pueblo in its successful litigation against Ogleby Norton Specialty Minerals to close a mica mine that has destroyed the traditional clay used by the pueblo’s potters and threatens the community’s water supply.  Picuris Pueblo has benefited both psychologically and culturally as community potters are returning to their traditional work.  Patrick finds support of such projects “important” because “it is proof that one can change lives, and even, to a degree, the life of a community, in a positive manner.”

Asked how he envisions a future Lannan Foundation without his leadership, Patrick Lannan argues that “one can’t control the future.  You have to trust that the Board will do right….My biggest disappointment would be if the Foundation became too mainstream and too conservative in its vision and actions.”

Patrick Lannan has never sought attention or the spotlight and has deflected all praise to the artists the LF honors and supports.  While preferring to stay out of the limelight, he has helped create a public legacy for his family foundation that honors innovation and creativity.  In our present time of distrust and dislocation, the Lannan Foundation has earned Northern New Mexico’s attention and deserves our continued support.