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How to Realize an Abstract Legacy

A novel arrangement with Otis College will allow artist Emerson Woelffer to shepherd his works before he dies.

March 19, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

It's hard to say who's happiest about a novel arrangement to manage Emerson Woelffer's estate--the 85-year-old artist, the president of the art school where he taught for 15 years or Woelffer's longtime dealer.

A veteran painter best known for muscular abstractions, Woelffer says he is thrilled--and greatly relieved--to have dealt with his artistic legacy while he is still very much alive. Under terms of a 10-year agreement, he has donated a large body of his work to his former employer, Otis College of Art and Design. In return, the college is paying him a monthly stipend, and it has established an endowment for student scholarships in his name.

Otis President Neil Hoffman is equally delighted that the college "invented" a way to help a retired faculty member that at the same time honors him and helps fund fine-arts students.

"Pretty clever, isn't it?" Hoffman asked, after explaining how the arrangement works. The college dipped into its own resources to set up an annuity that would pay Woelffer's monthly stipend, Hoffman said. The scholarship endowment, which was begun with $25,000 and is expected to grow considerably, is being funded by sales of the artworks.

Dealer Manny Silverman, who has represented Woelffer for the past 10 years and is handling sales of the donated works, is also pleased with the arrangement.

"Everybody wins in this situation," Silverman said. Declining to detail the financial arrangements, Silverman said he will maintain his long-standing relationship with Woelffer at his gallery in West Hollywood. That includes taking a commission from sales, promoting the artist and helping other galleries and museums exhibit his work. Prices for Woelffer's work range from about $2,000 for a print to $25,000 for a prime painting.

"What pleases me most is that this ensures Emerson's legacy," Silverman said. "It ensures that his work will be well taken care of." And on that, there seems to be complete agreement.

Woelffer, Hoffman and Silverman also agree that their plan is an innovative solution to a problem that confronts many artists and their families. While dealers compete fiercely to handle the estates of the relatively few renowned artists whose works are in demand, the creative legacies of less prominent figures often go begging after they die. And if the work is left to heirs, it can create a tax burden.

"With so many painters, what happens to their work is that it sits in a closet or the IRS gets something out of it," Woelffer said. "This way, my work won't just be in storage or going to the government."

The agreement also guards against another potential danger: devaluing the art by dumping a large number of works on the market at one time. Conventional wisdom indicates that the value of an artist's work escalates after the artist dies, but that is only true when the estate is well managed. If the market is flooded, even when the supply has been cut off by death, the price generally plummets.

"We will sell the work in accordance with Emerson's wishes--and Manny's and ours--slowly and carefully, so as not to have a negative impact on its value and on its potential to create the scholarship fund for fine-art students," Hoffman said.

The first show, a recent mini-retrospective at Silverman's gallery, was a success, financially and critically, so the new arrangement seems to be off to a good start. Supporters of the college purchased works, but so did other Los Angeles collectors, Silverman said. "We got wonderful support for the show," he said. "What's more, I think every artist in town came to see it."

Reviewing the exhibition in The Times, critic David Pagel praised the group of 30 paintings and ripped-paper collages, created between 1947 and 1988, as "a terrific selection" of works from the artist's "un-flaggingly vivacious oeuvre." As Pagel put it, "Woelffer's art travels (at an often dizzying, whiplash pace) from European Surrealism to American Pop and beyond." Bypassing the torment and angst that energized the New York School, his brand of gestural Expressionism favors the social space implied by numbers, letters and other legible symbols."

"The show went over very well," Woelffer said with obvious pleasure.

Something of a local hero, Woelffer has lived in Southern California so long that he is sometimes thought to be a native. He was born in Chicago and taught art at Chicago's Institute of Design, Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, then lived in Italy for three years before arriving in Los Angeles in 1959.

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During his first 14 years here, he taught at Chouinard Art Institute, which became the California Institute of the Arts. He joined the faculty of Otis Art Institute in 1974 and remained there until his retirement in 1989. (The school merged with Parsons School of Design in 1978 but became independent in 1991, when its name was changed to Otis College of Art and Design.)

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