Why Some Big-Time Art Donors Increasingly Give to the "Little Guys"

Let's say you're a private art collector and you'd like to donate a painting. The most obvious option is an art museum. Yet, by giving to a museum, you're running the risk that the piece may be placed in storage or hung in a location that minimizes its exposure to the public. You could also have it placed in a commercial building or corporate lobby. It's not exactly a novel concept, but it isn't exactly an exciting one either.

And so private art owners have started thinking outside of the box—to the benefit of smaller nonprofit organizations. The Wall Street Journal notes that rather than donating work to large art museums, these individuals are giving paintings to libraries, retirement centers, and hospitals.

It makes sense. People in libraries aren't exactly in a hurry. The atmosphere resembles that of a museum. It's not as if they're not racing to meet a client on the 11th floor in an office building. What's more, hospitals in particular are pointing to the health benefits of showing certain kinds of art. "Studies have shown that artwork helps to reduce stress and boredom, reduces blood pressure and increases white-blood-cell count, all of which are factors in the healing process," says Jessica R. Finch, art program manager at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

Of course, this logic certainly applies to the types of organizations looking to increase their holdings (particularly libraries and smaller arts spaces)

But where to begin? We suggest starting with your donor database. The Journal article notes that many donors have a personal connection to the recipient institution. Clearly the donor will be drawn to the fact that the painting will yield a deduction for the full, fair-market value of the work. But this isn't a given. The recipient organization must convincingly demonstrate that its use of the piece is related to its tax-exempt purpose. (Of course, if the recipient is an arts center, small museum, theater, etc., this will clearly be an easier case to make compared to, say, a retirement center.) There is also the added benefit that the donated piece can increase in value over time. 

Don't just take our word for it. Here's Los Angeles art adviser and collector Elaine Gans, who gave a piece to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Her logic was simple: "I like the hospital's belief that people there should have something nice to look at, and I wanted to support that," she said.