Gift or Burden? The Unexpected Challenges of Art Donations

Four students work in Wheaton College's collection storage room. Photo by: Keith Nordstrom

A donation of five Warhols? It’s exciting, but also daunting.

A donation of art to your academic institution can be thrilling. But, after the initial excitement, did you stomach just drop? Did you just calculate the additional hours of intake your registrar will have to take? The cost of shipping and installing the piece? Or, eek, the extra storage it will take because you have no space on your walls right now?

There is a lot to consider when accepting a gift. There are additional resources needed that may not be obvious to your donor. Do you ask the donor for a monetary gift to accompany the art? Can you say, “no, thank you”?

If you’ve been in this pickle before, you’re not alone. Directors of collegiate museums around the country share their thoughts on art donations.

Collectors, this may be eye-opening for you too!

Let’s look at the bright side—perks of art donations.

There are a lot of wonderful benefits to donations. For one, the artwork is FREE!

Giving to academic institutions keeps jumping and making new records. U.S. colleges and universities witnessed their ninth consecutive year of gains, and there was an increased giving of 7.2% in fiscal 2018, according to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s Voluntary Support of Education survey.

And, it looks like art programs within academic institutions are benefiting from those fiscal funds. Consider the remarkable donation to UC Irvine—3,200 paintings, sculptures and drawings focused primarily on the art of California. The collection was amassed by Gerald E. Buck, an Orange County real estate developer. The gift was so large that the university created the Institute and Museum for California Art (IMCA) to house the collection.

Donations can be teaching tools for students: Donors give to universities and colleges because they believe their gift will be better served and appreciated in an academic setting than in a larger institution where it may live in storage and never see the light of day. At least in academic institutions the pieces may be brought out as a teaching tool. Colleges and universities not only get pieces to hang in their galleries and throughout their campus, but they also get fodder for professors to share with their students, and can continue to expose students to different cultural heritage objects.

Donations help alleviate limited funds for acquisitions: The college or university may not have enough funds to purchase a masterpiece for their collection, but they can turn to donors that have deeper pockets.

But, donations aren’t really free. What is the TRUE cost of a gift?

Yes, it is a free acquisition of artwork, but what most donors don’t realize is that their works come with additional costs that may not be affordable. What are those costs? Shipping, installation, insurance, and conservation, to name a few.

We break down the true cost of art ownership in this article,The Cost of Maintaining a Fine Art Collection.

Let’s look at some of the challenges that come with art donations.

Challenge: Staff capacity

Donations need to be processed by the museum and that takes time. That means creating deeds of gift, and properly conditioning, cataloguing, photographing and digitizing the piece. That also means a staff member is responsible for all of those steps, alongside their other responsibilities. Depending on your staff size, that could create backlog despite your best efforts at preparedness.

Sometimes institutions receive gifts of over hundreds of works and it can put a significant strain on small staffs. Some colleges only have a staff of four to five people.

There is a silver lining to this. Online collection systems like Artwork Archive streamline the process of cataloging works. If all of the necessary materials are gathered beforehand, a staff member or intern can upload images, condition reports, deeds of gift and the important provenance details within a few hours.

Challenge: Operating budget

Some polled museum directors say that they would ask the donor for funds in addition to the gift in order to support the acquisition. The Penn Museum requests a cash gift of 10% of the appraisal value to accompany gifts-in-kind and support ongoing maintenance.

But, others share that it is rare for a gift of work to be accompanied by a cash gift. Donors may pay for shipping or for the promotion of the object in an exhibition and catalog, but typically, they assume the museum will care for it out of its operating budget.

Others believe that it is the responsibility of their institutions to have enough funds for standard collections activities. Janice Klein, Executive Director of the Museum Association of Arizona and consultant at EightSixSix Consulting says,

“Donors are not burdening you with their gifts. If there is not enough money allocated to support standard collections activities, you have an internal problem, not a donor issue. You may be able to build a relationship over time with your donor and get supporting funds. And, of course, there may be unusual circumstances that make it reasonable to ask for financial assistance (if the gift has special transport, installation, or conservation needs). But, it is a GIFT.”

Edwin Klein and a portion of his collection.

Challenge: Paperwork. Paperwork. Paperwork.

Objects cannot magically appear in a collection. There must be documentation of the gift for both parties for legal, tax and insurance purposes.

Sometimes museums can be caught with last minute requests before tax day by donors. Take this example from Lyndel King, Director and Chief Curator of the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota:

“We also have issues with processing the forms that donors need to submit with their taxes. Our University Foundation must approve those forms, which only confirm that the museum received the gift, not the valuation. We have had donors appear at my office with these forms on April 13 and to tell them that the Foundation may take several weeks to sign them is not much fun. We try, of course, to ask donors not to wait for getting these documents signed, but that doesn’t always happen. And we try, of course, to the get Foundation to understand the rush, but they have their processes.”

Collectors and institutions can both alleviate the painful, but necessary process of documentation by keeping online collection records. With an Artwork Archive account, donors and collecting institutions can both upload, store and then easily share critical information related to their artworks.

Challenge: When the donor is of greater value than the work.

Do you cringe when you think of managing donor relationships? It’s an important part of cultivating a collection. But, sometimes it is difficult when the donor is more important to your institution than the work. Or when the gift itself does not fit into your collection’s mission.

Challenge: Keeping your donor happy.

Your art donor may not expect push back or slow processes. If you have an acquisition committee that needs to approve additions to a collection, you may keep your donor waiting. And, if they are driven by tax considerations, they may not want to wait to have their gift officially processes.

Challenge: College Advancement doesn’t play by the same rules as museums.

It may not be you or your museum’s governing body that expects a fiscal gift alongside the side. Sometimes it is your college advancement office.

Leah Niederstadt, Associate Professor of Museum Studies and Curator of the Permanent Collection at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, shares,

“We've lost out on donations that would've greatly strengthened our collection because the donors refused to make a monetary gift in support of the donation. Our collection management policy does not require such financial support, nor would I ever expect it even though we are understaffed and have limited resources. In several instances, however, our Office of Advancement was also cultivating donors for monetary gifts to the college and these became linked to the proposed donation of artwork. In the end, the donors chose to give their collections to other (non-academic) institutions.That said, I have also had donors make completely unsolicited offers of monetary gifts in support of their gifts-in-kind donations. In such instances, we have gratefully accepted and worked closely with colleagues in the Office of Advancement to make certain that policies and procedures for both of our areas are followed and that the monies actually end up in support of the collection.”

Challenge: Public art is a different beast.

Typically donors of public art works understand that their large-scale art contributions necessitate significant shipping, installation and maintenance funds. Collectors who own large-scale installations and sculptures understand the complexity of the pieces and how they can be an unexpected burden.

James Steward, Director of Princeton University Art Museum, states that gifts of public art "can fairly be understood as creating an unplanned-for burden, which we need to manage through finding new resources. In my experience of this rather limited category of object, collectors who own such works understand their particular realities."

Samuel Levi Jones, Twenty Seven, 2017, deconstructed medical books mounted on canvas. Intended gift of Bob Mersky. Photo permissions from the Weisman Art Museum.

Solution: Build long-term relationships with donors.

If a collector is not planning to provide monetary funds along with their gift, you may catch them off-guard with an ask. Perhaps you can invest in a more longtail approach and accept the gift, ask for a small financial donation, and then cultivate and strengthen the relationship to ask for future financial help. Just because a donor says “no” at first doesn’t mean the door is forever shut.

Janice generously offers her own personal experience as a prospective donor:

“My family offered to make a donation of an important collection to a large museum. It was an encyclopedic collection of over 10,000 pieces of something they had a small but significant collection of, and the curator indicating they really wanted it. However we were told that in addition to donating the objects, the museum wanted money for an exhibit, printed catalogue, and, of course, funds to cover the cost of processing the collection. We offered to make a smaller financial donation with the collection, with the possibility of additional, larger, monetary donations in the future. Rather than build a relationship with us, which is what every successful fundraiser will tell you is the key to donor relations, they went for the "big bucks" or nothing. So they got nothing.”

Solution: Understand your donors' motivations for giving.

Your donors may have different expectations and motives when it comes to their art gift. Sure, it’s a generous move to gift a piece of work, and the institution benefits from the gift, but they may have motives that are not 100% about the museum, and more for the financial well-being of their estate. Some donors may be relieving tax burden. Donating a piece of art allows them to write off money in their books. So additional funds for the preservation of the works may not be an option.

Solution: It’s OK to say “no, thank you.”

“Gifts can be a burden, but if we are not prepared to rise to that occasion I agree that we should decline and allow the donor the opportunity to find an institution that is better equipped,” asserts James Steward.

If your museum does not have the operating budget to properly care for the works, it’s ok to graciously say, “no, thank you” to a gift.

The same goes for donations that do not fit within the mission of your museum. It’s your job to the steward for your collection, and when you are accepting a donation, you are taking on the responsibility of preserving its legacy.

Some academic institutions are better equipped to receive gifts than others. It all depends on endowment, staff, collection size, and other factors.

To help level the playing field, and enable smaller institutions to accept gifts, cloud-based tools like Artwork Archive have populated the art world. If you have limited staff and resources, consider using a collection management system to help streamline the acquisitions process.

Artwork Archive is used by collectors and collecting institutions throughout the world. Start a free trial account.

William S Jiggetts

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