“Museums in the United States and the public they serve benefit immensely from the generosity of donors. It is not an exaggeration to state that without the vital partnership between donors and museums, many museums in this country could not sustain their operations.”
The above quotation is taken from To Give and To Receive: A Handbook on Gifts and Donations for Museums and Donors, edited by Sharon Smith Theobald and Laurette E. McCarthy. And there is a lot of truth to their bold statement. Only the “rich and famous” museums and galleries can afford to buy what they want for their permanent collection. In fact, more often than not, these institutions are selling rather than buying. In the past several years, numerous museums and university galleries have sold part or all of their collections in order to meet budget demands. It’s a confusing and sometimes frightening situation when art begins to play musical chairs, and masterpieces, both major and minor, begin to shift from pillar to post.
Museums and especially academic galleries are fortunate in that they are frequently chosen as repositories of gifts from art collectors. Many collectors have sadly come to realize that a treasure, often purchased at great sacrifice, will be unappreciated and sold to the highest bidder by their ungrateful offspring. The logical solution is to give the art to a museum or gallery. But such generosity often leaves the institution with a mixed blessing. It raises the question of whether or not a museum/gallery should ever refuse a gift.
Charitable donations come with obligations for both the donor and the recipient. There are legal and ethical requirements for the organization that benefits from such gifts. The legal requirements must be satisfied in order for the museum/gallery to receive the gift. Questions such as the legality of a valid and unencumbered ownership must be answered before the institution can assume the gift. All restrictions regarding the gift and its use, such as resale issues, must be clearly spelled out. To my mind, the greater questions involve the ethics of receiving the gift.
The first question is: does the gift contribute to the role, scope and mission of the institution? Does the gift enhance the already established collection? If I am curator of a gallery dedicated to American art, can I, in good conscience, accept the gift of a Monet just because it is “a Monet” and is a valuable piece of art? When does this issue cross the line into greed?
As an example, we can look at the permanent collection held by LSUA. The role, scope and mission of our gallery is the acquisition of work by Gulf Coast artists. We hold outstanding works by artists such as Ida Kohlmeyer, Clyde Connell, Clementine Hunter, and Walter Anderson. We continue to seek work by our regional artists, largely through donation. Even though we schedule shows that may not contain work by regional artists, these shows do not feature into our permanent collection. Often, the University Gallery will exhibit art that is of interest to the community, as is the case of most galleries. This does not conflict with our role, scope and mission policy. One of our upcoming fall shows, for example, will feature Shona sculpture from the area of southeastern Africa now known as Zimbabwe, along with other pieces of African art.
Short of being the Metropolitan Museum or the National Gallery, institutions are generally restricted to a particular kind of art. Only the big players can be all things to all people. And if a gallery focuses on a particular style, period or region, it is better able to amass a solid permanent collection.
There are times when the most ethical action would be to refuse a gift and direct the donor to an institution that specializes in that particular category and could put the gift to far better use. We have reached the point where specialization is all-important. If an individual develops heart problems, the family physician will defer to a cardiologist. It is simply a practical course of action. So it is with any discipline. And so it is with art institutions. If you have art to donate, seek out the place where your “treasure” can receive the love, attention and purpose for which it was intended. The policies should be clearly documented and implemented. In the world of art, giving is a great virtue that should be carefully considered, and receiving should be unselfishly motivated. Then it becomes a win-win situation. Institution, donor and the public all benefit.