What are you going to do with all of that?

Nicky McWilliam, daughter of Eva Breuer, with private collection that appeared on Slow Burn. Credit: Ben Rushton
Nicky McWilliam, daughter of Eva Breuer, with private collection which appeared on Slow Burn. Credit: Ben Rushton

Part of the process of acquiring and growing wealth, is its eventual distribution. You spend a significant part of your life getting and growing. You don’t want it all lost or wasted or misused by people you don’t like (yes taxes, but not just taxes). You want your life, legacy and philanthropy to be meaningful. What you want is for your beloved accumulation to be enjoyed by people you love, doing things you care about and serving causes and institutions that you believe in. That applies to your monetary assets - cash, investments, properties - as well as your collections, unless you’re collecting something “esoteric” (read: dumb). Nobody wants that stuff.

"Part of the process of acquiring and growing wealth, is its eventual distribution."

For art collectors, the Holy Grail of legacy is to have your collection kept intact at a major museum, preferably in a gallery with your name on it. Like the Holy Grail, that’s rare and hard to get. Why is that? Don’t art museums need art? Shouldn’t they be jumping quick and high at free art? The answers are: some, not all and no, because it’s not free. In fact, some museums have basements and storage units full of artworks without walls or pedestals to display them. Also, keeping art is a costly affair. It is for you and it will be for whoever takes your collection on. All is not lost though. Here are some tips for keeping your collection out of your third husband’s second wife’s step-nephew’s nail salon. (That could happen…)

First, don’t wait until you’re on your deathbed to get started sorting this. Planning works out better when it’s well thought out and carefully executed over an extended period of time. The cobbled together, “what-we-can-with-what-we-have” style planning can also work, but never as well. If you are able to make your art acquisitions with the future destination in mind, that could be helpful. Where do you want your collection to go? With whom is your primary relationship? Can you consult with the curatorial staff about their plans for future direction and where that might overlap with what you want to buy?

Next, think expenses. Have you ever received a gift that had come with a high cost of ownership? Think puppy, or pony. (Thanks Aunty Mame.) Sending some money with that gift is a really good idea. Life insurance is good for that. Your institution of choice will get your stuff with some cash to help with its care and storage and your spouse and heirs will no doubt appreciate not having to share your money with those museum people.

Another thing; don’t make it hard. Donors often have demands that seem completely reasonable to them, but that will virtually handcuff whomever accepts the gift. Conversation, negotiation, compromise are good for all involved. Dr Albert C Barnes had so many restrictions and stipulations to the care and keeping of his collection that even the worlds greatest museums might have balked at accepting it, even though it is generally acknowledged as being one of the worlds greatest collections of impressionist art. He therefore founded his own museum to house the collection, the foundation to pay for it, and an iron clad trust to protect it. Problems solved. The Barnes Foundation is an extreme example, but this is a thing that well funded collectors can sometimes do.

Research, research, research. Ask the right questions. Ask stupid questions. Assume nothing. Your stuff is your stuff and you can do what you want with it, so there’s room for negotiation if an institution wants it. There are reasons why things are done the way things are done though. Learn the whats and the whys.

This bit is by no means comprehensive. There’s a lot to consider. Mistakes and surprises are mostly avoidable with good reading and sound counsel. Here is some additional information and resources:


Inside Philanthropy

Art Fund

William S Jiggetts

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"A little sleep, a little slumbering, a little folding of the hands to rest, and your poverty will come like a bandit, and your want like an armed man." - Proverbs 24: 33, 34 NWT

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