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Philanthropist Joan K. Davidson dies at 96

Joan K. Davidson. Photo contributed

HUDSON — Joan Kaplan Davidson, president of Furthermore grants in publishing and president emeritus of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, died on August 11. She was 96.

In 1995, Ms. Davidson founded Furthermore grants in publishing as a publication program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund and established its office in Hudson. Furthermore supports publication of nonfiction books that concern the arts, history, and the natural and built environment. Since its inception, the program has assisted more than 1,400 books, granting over $8 million to nonprofits across the United States, Canada and Europe.

Ann Birckmayer, program director of Furthermore and the Alice Award said, in a press release, “Joan loved books for their capacity to expand knowledge, provoke thought, and speak for the public interest. Across the country, exceptional books that might not have come into being without her support stand as a legacy. We will miss her immeasurably and will carry on her good work.”

In addition to her leadership of Furthermore, in 2013, Ms. Davidson founded the Alice Award, an annual prize for illustrated books. The $25,000 prize is chosen by a jury of professionals and awarded annually to an illustrated book that makes a valuable contribution to its field and demonstrates high standards of production. Books selected by the award jury for the Alice short list each receive $5,000. At the end of 2023, $385,000 will have been given in support of illustrated publications.

Ian Wardropper, director of The Frick Collection said, also in the release, “First for Furthermore and then for the Alice Award, Joan Davidson created a unique mark in the literary world. Furthermore stands out among foundations for its support of nonfiction books with grants that are often critical for funding leading to their publication. The Alice recognizes books that exemplify the successful relationship of text to image and the lasting value of the well-made illustrated book. Inherent in Alice books is a special sense of intimacy, as the reader turns the pages to discover fresh insights. Joan Davidson made a heroic commitment to the writers, editors, designers, illustrators, and publishers who create our beloved books. As chair of the Alice Jury, I and my colleagues found great pleasure in furthering Joan’s vision and hope that her spirit will carry forward.”

In 2022 Joan Davidson created a speaker series hosted at the Carriage House at Midwood, her property in the Hudson River Valley. Ms. Davidson sponsored the program, under the aegis of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, to encourage participants to, “Listen, see, think, agree, disagree, and have fun!”

A native of New York City and longtime resident of Columbia County, Ms. Davidson devoted her life to public service. She served as chair of the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission and the New York State Council on the Arts and as commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation.

From 1977 to 1993, she was president of the J. M. Kaplan Fund. As president emeritus until her death, she continued to advocate for the architecture, design, and quality of life of New York City while supporting numerous Hudson Valley nonprofit organizations dedicated to the environment, social justice, the arts and historic preservation.

Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) said, “Joan K. Davidson was a beloved friend, an inspiring role model and a quintessential New Yorker, whose passion for our state, majestic Hudson River, culture, arts and stories was unsurpassed. She spent her life fighting for our landmarks and cultural institutions, for our beautiful natural resources, and for a more just and equitable society. I will always picture Joan at Midwood surrounded by family and friends, orchestrating multiple conversations about arts and politics. Everywhere there are piles of fascinating books, many made possible through the remarkable Furthermore grants in publishing program which she launched in 1995 from a little office in the City of Hudson. Joan will be greatly missed, but she has left us an extraordinary legacy.”

The J. M. Kaplan Fund was established in 1945 by Ms. Davidson’s father, businessman and philanthropist Jacob Merrill Kaplan (1891–1987), who was its president until 1977. Today the fund is managed by an Operating Board that consists of J. M. Kaplan’s seven grandchildren.

Under Ms. Davidson’s leadership, the J. M. Kaplan Fund continued the work of her father, often stepping in as the first funder for organizations working to preserve threatened buildings, support cultural institutions, restore New York landmarks and achieve social justice. With a modest endowment, compared with larger foundations, the J. M. Kaplan Fund pledges support for solutions to complex problems. Ms. Davidson explained, “We didn’t give huge amounts of money. To us the point was to use money strategically, to get causes off the ground.”

Ms. Davidson lived in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley with many of her four children, twelve grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren in residence nearby.

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