Donating Art Can Be a Major Hassle. For Some Museums, This is Good News

  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo:  Capture Light /shutterstock

 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Capture Light/shutterstock

Earlier this year, I looked at some of the drivers behind the surge in single-donor private museums. A collector wants to be absolutely sure the public sees his work. A collector believes there's a glaring void in the region's arts ecosystem. Or perhaps a collector's accountant reminds him of the potential tax advantages at play.

A recent piece by Paul Sullivan in the New York Times suggests another reason why collectors may decide to go it alone: Donating work to a museum can be too complicated or even in some cases, too expensive.

"There’s this natural feeling that you can walk up to the Met and they’ll take your work," said Steve Schindler, chairman of the art law committee of the New York City Bar Association and a partner at Schindler Cohen & Hochman. "It’s not so."

This reality underscores a Catch-22 in the current philanthropic landscape. The contemporary art market is red-hot right now, and many museums are struggling to play catch-up. And yet most collectors, according to Sullivan, "struggle to donate their art, even valuable art, to museums." Why?

One reason is the inherent subjective value of a given work. Most museum curators would walk on broken glass to acquire a Basquiat. Yet transactions are rarely that simple. Collections of "mixed quality," according to Sullivan, inevitably necessitate negotiation, much to the frustration of donors who expect museums to receive their work with rapturous gratitude.

Indeed, we've seen several examples of negotiated donations over the past year.

Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and her husband Gustavo A. Cisneros announced they would give 102 pieces of Latin American Art and establish a research institute for related studies at the Museum of Modern Art. She allowed the MoMA to pick from her home collection as long as the museum, in addition to displaying the pieces, would regularly loan the works to other institutions.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art forged a partnership with the Fisher Art Foundation, which ensured a long-term loan of 1100+ works from the collection of Donald Fisher, the billionaire retailer and philanthropist who passed away in 2009.

The terms of this negotiated give, which, among other things, stipulated that a minimum percentage of Fisher pieces were to be displayed in the wing at all times, generated pushback by detractors like cultural critic Lee Rosenbaum, who called the museum's concessions "excessive."

The donation was 10 years in the making.

Sullivan further expounds on the nuances of such negotiations, noting, "If a museum is on the fence about a donation or collection, it might ask for additional money in the form of an endowment" to accept the art—a counteroffer that may rub collectors the wrong way until they realize that museums must store and preserve the art.

Add it all up, and you can't blame collectors for being a bit leery. Many don't have the stomach for a protracted negotiation, the requisite legal bills, or the bad publicity that may result from what could be perceived as a skewed partnership. Sometimes, it's better to fly solo or bypass museums entirely.

So what can museums do to grease the wheels? If the museum believes the work is of dubious quality or inauthentic, not too much. Drawn-out negotiations—or outright rejection—comes with the territory.  

That said, rather than sit around and wait for collectors to come knocking, museums can be proactive. Nilani Trent, an art adviser in Manhattan, said that smooth transactions usually have two common ingredients. First, the museum has a long-term relationship with the collector. No surprise, here; practically every IP piece documenting a contemporary art give corroborates this correlation.

And second, the museum, according to Trent, approaches the collector and says, "This is a weak part of our collection." This is probably the biggest takeaway from Sullivan's piece. Museums need contemporary art, but they're not desperate, especially with so much work in storage. If a collector has something that fills a specific gap in the museum's collection, the odds of a smooth donation rise exponentially.

Which brings me to my final point. The LACMA has 150,000 pieces of art while MoMA has 200,000 pieces. Sure, these museums have "needs," but they're relative compared to smaller or regional museums with more limited collections. 

In fact, if there are any winners in this complicated process, it's midsize regional museums.

Evan Beard, national art services executive for U.S. Trust, has the following advice for collectors whose initial proposal is met by a museum's counteroffer for a supplemental cash donation: "It is better to go for a midsize regional museum where your works will be a focus," he said.