Artists Demand Artist Pension Trust Halt Controversial Storage Fee
A group of Los Angeles-based artists sent a letter this week to the Artist Pension Trust demanding the withdrawal of a controversial amendment proposal to the artists’ contracts, and several more letters may be on the way.
The Artist Pension Trust (APT) launched in 2004 with the intention of providing artists a way to benefit from the success of their peers by pooling works and distributing profits from the sales to the group. Roughly 250 artists were invited to participate in eight regional groups, along with one global pool, by donating one work a year for 20 years. APT would then sell selected works after a minimum of 10 years, and distribute 72 percent of the profits to the group, according to its website.
In late July, artists in the Los Angeles group began receiving letters notifying them of a proposed amendment to their contracts, which would allow the company to charge artists for storage costs that are significantly higher than the norm, or for storage with special or technical requirements. Many artists in the Facebook group said they had been given a figure of $6.50 per month per artwork held by APT, or been asked to pick up the works at their own expense.
The storage charge is related to APT’s new sales policy, which is intended to encourage artists to sell the work themselves or through their galleries. The sales policy changed after APT artists pulled their works from an April auction in London and asked for more control over how their works reach the market.
Kristin Calabrese, a Los Angeles-based painter who said she had been happy with APT's operation until she received the letter, posted about it on her Facebook page. She tagged other artists she knew to be in the Los Angeles pool, and her post was shared widely. She started the Facebook group APT Artist Solidarity, where artists from around the world have been sharing information and encouraging their peers not to to sign the storage fee amendment.
Liam Roth, a Los Angeles contract lawyer who sent the letter to APT on Wednesday, said the proposed amendment was submitted improperly and implied that the trust could pass the amendment without majority approval, in violation of the original contract between APT and the artists. The wording of the amendment sent to artists said a failure to respond would be considered acceptance, but Roth said the original contract specifies that an affirmative consent is required. The letter, which was signed by over 125 artists, seeks just the withdrawal of the amendment.
“There is the potential to resolve this in an amicable way for all parties,” Roth said. He did not specify what the next steps would be, but noted that a refusal to withdraw the amendment within a reasonable timeframe would constitute a breach of contract.
A global response letter representing artists in different regional pools is also forthcoming, according to an artist involved with coordinating it, and individual artists are considering their own legal strategies. Some have oversize works in storage or works stored in several countries.
Artists in the Facebook group have observed that the amendments, which were rolled out in the following weeks to different pools around the world, came at a time when many Americans and Europeans are away on holiday. One APT artist estimated as many as three-fourths of the artists in the Berlin and London pools were traveling or in places without reliable access to the internet.
Others expressed disbelief that they were being asked to shoulder storage costs after donating artworks for free. APT has amassed some 13,000 works, according to its website, potentially the world’s largest private contemporary art collection, without buying a single work.
“How can you not see the costs of storage increasing and plan for that? That is one of the most basic costs to a business like that,” said Scott Andresen, a New Orleans-based artist who was one of the original artists in the New York pool. He added that keeping the art in storage may have undercut APT’s business model, since it made the work harder for prospective buyers to see.
"In a decade, I was never contacted about a show that I may be right for or an opportunity that might be worth looking into," Andresen said. "That really shouldn't be the case."
APT did not respond to emails or phone calls requesting comment.
Not every artist was dissatisfied at the approach. Monika Bravo, a New York-based installation and animation artist, has more than 10 works with the Mexico City trust. She called APT after getting the letter and met in person with an APT executive for several hours, during which time they negotiated a satisfactory outcome. She said she had not known she could take her works out of the trust and offer them to her collectors, which is now allowed under the new sales policy.
In her view, artists need to adapt and find ways to work with the company to see the outcomes they both envisioned, especially in light of a challenging market for mid-career artists who aren’t blue-chip names. She encouraged other artists to reach out to the company and find a way to move forward.
“The market itself has changed so much since the very first time APT started or was conceived,” Bravo said. “A lot of things they thought would happen haven’t happened.”
—Anna Louie Sussman
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that APT’s proposed amendment would require artists to pay a monthly storage fee of $6.50 per artwork. The proposed amendment did not mandate a set fee, though some artists reported they had been given a figure of $6.50 per artwork per month.