Whither Donations Of Art To Museums In 2021?

2021 is challenging all of our long-held assumptions. One of those assumptions is that museums are willing and able to accept specific artwork or even entire collections, now owned by artists and collectors who are in their 80’s and 90’s. Planners need to reconsider whether the donation of physical objects to a bricks-and-mortar museum    

Planning for artists and collectors has always been different because, unlike owners of stocks, bonds and other liquid investment assets, owners of art have a personal emotional relationship with each unique asset they possess. An owner of art often values their possessions higher than the same assets that they do not possess. 

Similarly, institutions and the public at large can and will develop a sense of ownership relationship with private collections and demand the direct or indirect access. For a bricks-and mortar museum this will most likely result in the display in public spaces and a dependence on the mass appeal of shows and displays to generate revenues from donations and ticket sales. The tension in planning for artists and collectors exists where the desire to preserve the personal relationship with the collection during the owner’s lifetime and after their death clashes with the fact that no museum can openly display and preserve all of the art in their collection.

This is tension is compounded today because many of the collections reflect the background of the artist or collector which often means that the perspectives of women, people of color and other marginalized groups in society are either unrepresented or represented in what are now seen as harmful ways. Since 2020 no museum can safely open up without major renovations to their physical structure or a major reduction in the people allowed to enter at any one time. The high costs of maintaining staffing and physical structures to display the art is such a crisis that the American Association of Museum Directors has temporarily allowed members to sell art from the collection and use the proceeds to fund operating costs, a complete reversal of their position up until this point. 

Some museums see the crisis as an opportunity along with the convergence of virtual ownership, virtual reality and crowdsourcing coincides with the need for radical changes. Bitcoin, a virtual ownership device, uses blockchain technology to create unique virtual assets. Virtual reality has progressed to the point where it is possible to have people believe they are in a totally different , often fantastical, location. GoFundMe is an example of virtual possession of actual assets. Combined, the existence of these virtual alternatives to possession of the physical artwork allows many more people to experience some relationship with the art, and even contribute to its acquisition and maintenance, without having to necessarily always display the piece. 

How does this effect the planning for artists and collectors? It effects the planning by making the donation of the virtual representation of the artwork and placing it into the public domain possible even if the actual objects are retained by the artist or collector or the some of the artwork is eventually sold. Most artists, collectors or their planners know how to virtually describe, record and preserve a collection. Museums and other institutions do, but cannot afford to do so for artwork outside of their own collection. 

What is required is planning for a current and ongoing collaboration between artist and collectors on one hand and museums on the other for the creation and access to a virtual as well as physical collection.

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