Should I Donate My Art?

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With their modest means, Herb Vogel, a postman, and his wife, Dorothy, a librarian, managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history, many of which were donated by the couple to the National Gallery.
With their modest means, Herb Vogel, a postman, and his wife, Dorothy, a librarian, managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history, many of which were donated by the couple to the National Gallery.

Dear BURNAWAY,
I have a collection of art and artifacts that was passed down to me from my grandparents. I don’t have much interest in keeping the items, as I live in a very small place with my wife and we don’t have much room to store them, nor do we have the proper knowledge to care for them. I don’t want to sell them, even though they are valuable. That doesn’t feel right to us. Should I donate the objects to a museum? Can you help me weigh pros and cons?
Sincerely,
Indecisive in Chattanooga


Dear Indecisive,
First thing’s first: congratulations for not being a gold-digging, money-grubbing heir clamoring to eek out all the pennies they can from precious family heirlooms! Not that those people exist or anything. I’ve never seen one. At all. Not ever. Not once. It sounds like you’ve got a good conscience about it, and nothing makes me happier than people who want to do good things with the art they own.*

Géza von Habsburg, who inherited numerous artworks and artifacts  from his royal Austrian ancestors, recently watched as about 100 of his family’s former heirlooms were installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Géza von Habsburg, who inherited numerous artworks and artifacts from his royal Austrian ancestors, recently watched as about 100 of his family’s former heirlooms were installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in February 2015. The exhibition, “The Habsburgs,” will arrive at the High Museum in October.

I’m really glad you wrote in with this question, because it’s something that a lot of people have faced, or will face, at some point in their adult lives: trying to decide what to do with their parents’ or grandparents’ stuff. It can be physically overwhelming and emotionally exhausting.
I’ve seen it first hand, from a son trying to find a home his late father’s massive output of paintings to a younger sister fighting for the ownership rights of a work of art passed down through the family. I’ve also talked to a few older couples trying to negotiate what to do with their multitude of prized possessions. It can get tricky.
Oftentimes children of collectors do not want to take on ownership of their parents’ art collections. And there are many reasons for that: style of the art doesn’t fit with the son/daughter’s aesthetic; space concerns; caretaking insecurities; can’t afford adequate insurance; bad juju due to harrowing childhood memories. The reasons are endless, as you can imagine. Despite all the time and effort a collector puts into his shrine to his refined tastes, and the end of the day, it’s stuff, and it’s got to find a home somewhere.
So that’s where donations usually come in. Often times collectors will donate their entire art collections to museums or institutions as a way to ensure their curated world of valuable things will be preserved and cared for. And it’s a great option for many collectors, as opposed to, say, selling everything at auction. Selling and separating a collection, for collectors, can be a traumatic process that negates all the years and passion they invested in bringing the objects together.
In other cases, these decisions end up being left to their loved ones. The instinct is often to sell, and get whatever money one can get. But if it’s a truly special, important collection of art–it has the potential for a much more significant future.
So, if you are on the fence about donating the collection, you might want to think about how the objects will be used in the event that you bequeath them to some lucky place. If it’s a university gallery, they may be a part of the teaching collection, incorporated into classroom learning for our future leaders. The objects could be displayed in exhibitions that will help students learn and grow. If it’s a museum, the collection could be loaned out through various exhibitions and travel around the world, reaching all sorts of viewers. Think hard about the institution you want to approach with your gift. Ask questions! See how the donation might be used and cared for. It will probably help you make the right decision for you and your family.
Another great aspect to donating is that it’s a way to ensure your family’s legacy, and I’d argue it’s often a pretty noble way to do it, too. Instead of, oh, finally getting 1st place in Gallaga and typing in your grandma’s name; or getting a tattoo of your family crest on your ankle; or “adopting” a star in honor of your dad. Those are all really sweet, but they don’t make as much of a long-lasting impact on your community as much as donating a collection of art can.
One warning, though: don’t assume any place you choose will be able to take your collection. Museums can’t take everything that’s offered to them. If they agree to take in a collection, that means they have to store it, care for it, and insure it in perpetuity. That’s a big commitment. Depending on the collection you have, you may have to do some shopping around to find the perfect fit.
Finally, if you do decide to donate, research as much as you can about the objects: where they came from, how and when your grandparents acquired them, if they knew the artists and artisans personally, etc. Write down all the information you can for the collection’s file.The more the curators and staff know about the pieces, the more they can incorporate them into their programming and exhibitions (typically).
*I understand that in some cases selling art heirlooms is not only necessary but occasionally good. I simply try to resist the notion of “art as monetary investment” as much as humanly possible. It’s a toxic path to travel. That is all.
Got a question for Sara? Send an email to [email protected]
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.