A Nuanced Question
Unlike the strictly governed institutional practice of deaccessioning work, there are few firm rules for institutions on whether or in what cases to accept collections with strings attached. The Met, for example, states on its website that it generally does not accept donations with terms. But it and other museums like it are free to craft their own rules but can also make exceptions if needed. Observers say this flexibility is important given the reality of donations and the fact that, as museum acquisition budgets shrink, gifts have become the main avenue for adding masterpieces to public collections.
“Decisions on accepting a gift of a collection or singular work of art need to be assessed on a case by case basis, and reflect the best interests of the museum, art, and donor,” wrote Christa Clarke, president of the Association of Art Museum Curators, an advocacy group that sets standards for its profession, in an email.
“There’s a kind of dance that has to go on, if you will, between the private collector and the public institution,” said Jeffrey Cain, a founding partner of the consulting firm American Philanthropic.
When offered a donation with terms that limit unencumbered curatorial freedom, the director, the board, and often the curators of an institution weigh numerous factors in deciding if to accept it. These include the prominence of the works, the duration the works must be exhibited, and what, if any, gaps exist in the museum’s own collection.
Recent donations to major public institutions that have included display terms haven’t been nearly as restrictive as the Lehman Collection’s but have still generated attention.
The Art Institute of Chicago’s acceptance of 42 works by artists including
significantly bolstered its contemporary collection. But the donation came with the condition that the approximately $400 million in art stay on view for 50 years. For the first half of that time period, they must be shown together in the museum’s contemporary galleries.
The terms, which were disclosed in the press release announcing the donation, were key in helping the Art Institute of Chicago win the donation. “I have donated works of art to museums for years but have been frustrated by their lack of exposure,” said
Edlis, echoing a sentiment felt by many collectors who attach display conditions out of concern that their work will wind up in a basement.
In an email to Artsy, James Rondeau, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, firmly rejected the idea that the terms amounted to a burden on curators in a way that would set art history in amber, arguing that showing the works bolsters the museum’s ability to craft narrative through contemporary art and that the ultimate beneficiaries of the pieces are its audiences, artists, and the public.
“We made our selections precisely because these are works of art we will want—and we believe future stewards of the collection will want—our visitors to experience,” Rondeau wrote. “Stefan and Gael have given us total freedom to lend these works to other museums, and to rotate for conservation purposes,” he added, calling the collection “dynamic, not static.”
Indeed, when museums are accepting gifts with terms attached, collectors and institutions often think far into the future. There is, for example, a significant difference between a gift with display conditions that extend in perpetuity versus those with shorter restrictions. Adrian Ellis, founder of AEA Consulting, which offers services in the cultural and creative industries, urges taking a long view when donations are restricted for even a few decades given museums are supposed to exist for centuries.
“Sucking it up for 20 years isn’t the worst thing in the world, to put it bluntly,” he said.
Why Collectors Include Terms
Multiple individuals interviewed for this story suggested that the practice of donating works to institutions with terms attached is on the rise. However, Diana Wierbicki, global head of art law at law firm Withers Worldwide, said that in her nine years directly facilitating such transactions, there hasn’t been a discernible uptick.
Headlines may be deceiving, she suggested: They most often cover major donations of huge collections, which, in turn, provide donors the most leverage in a negotiation with a museum. These donations are, however, a rarity compared to one-off gifts that infrequently make news or attract attention but provide crucial depth to institutions.
Wierbicki said that what motivates most of her clients to attach terms to their gifts is a genuine passion for the works they’ve assembled. “They want to give the public the most benefit from that art,” she said. Some collectors support work, which mainstream institutions show all too rarely and might be pushed to exhibit more, further compelling them to get assurances from institutions that the public will see the works. Wierbicki said this is particularly true when it comes to art by women.
“The donors really care about the cause,” she said. “They’d really like to see these artists displayed and not have work go into storage.”
Storr said, however, that even when applied with good intentions, applying strict terms to donations can actually undermine—rather than solidify—a collector’s legacy over time. This is especially the case if the terms imperil the ability of an institution to survive financially or make sound curatorial choices.
The former senior curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA
said he turned down donations while at the museum because of the terms attached and he argues that directors need to “stand up” to collectors, for their own good and for the long-term benefit of the institution under their care.
“Collectors do not always know best,” Storr said. “And if the idea is to get yourself a place in history, who wants to have a place in history that makes you look bad?”