I was recently involved in appraising artworks by several well-known artists which were slated for donation to private and publicly funded art museums and galleries. I began to wonder, albeit in hindsight and naively, about how and why works of art are chosen by major public and private galleries.
Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo, Raising La Mama Grande [detail] (2009), mixed media drawing [Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge AB, Jan 15-Mar 6]
Why do contemporary artists donate their work and why do serious collectors donate their collections? Why do major museums appear to have in their collections all the great works by great artists? One would like to think that reasons for donating are based on admirable philanthropic principles, generosity of spirit and a desire to give back to the community, but it seems obvious that there might be more agenda-driven motivations.
Consider, for example, a wealthy collector and philanthropist who plans to eventually leave his important collection to a major art institution. One wonders how the collection was built and why an institution would welcome it. One also wonders if such a planned donation is linked to a purposeful shaping of an institutions permanent collection and if contributing to the critical and financial success of a particular artist is a factor. A significant donation would also elevate the institutions international profile and career trajectory of its curators, historians and art managers. How does all of this affect our collective cultural consciousness and form our history of art?
A possible explanation for the accumulation of a specific collection could be connected to the active participation and guidance by art specialists in accordance with the directives and goals of an institution. It is not unusual to witness such collaborations at art auctions; situations that will ensure the continual enhancement of an institutions reputation and the elevation of personal reputations. Once an institution receives a major donation, it then often markets the collection under the donors name to give an example of the astute collecting abilities of an art lover who has magnanimously given his valuable collection back to the community.
There seems to be no mention about the enormous tax receipt given to the collector or his estate which has a direct proportional relationship to personal and estate tax obligations. The donation process can also work well in reverse when a large corporation seeks to reduce its tax burden while appearing to support a citys cultural life. Here too, a major work will often be purchased specifically for future donation in the name of the corporation and often with the advice of a gallery mandarin or a professional art advisor.
A contemporary artist also benefits if he places one or several of his pieces into a major gallery. Years ago it was standard practice for an emerging artist to donate a piece to the National Gallery for no other reason than to be able to truthfully state that his work was in that collection, and to perhaps enjoy any subsequent financial benefits. The gallery has long since discouraged this activity as it was unable to accommodate the wealth of work (good and atrocious) it received.
Every artist knows that the donation process is an excellent way to bury pieces which may have a detrimental effect on current pricing structures. I have been involved with artists who refuse to acknowledge authorship of an early work because it is stylistically quite different from their current work which brings in a much higher price. A gallery owner may also actively encourage the artist to do so, for obvious reasons.
This certainly doesnt do much for collectors of early work who cannot recover the initial investment upon re-sale. Then we have contemporary artists who donate a conceptual work of questionable production cost in an attempt to secure a tax receipt and to position the work in an influential cutting-edge gallery so as to elevate his artistic stature within the international community. At times my appraisal work has been challenged by such artists as I was seen to not be sensitive to the value of the intangible, intrinsic and conceptual aspect of their work even though it is not part of my mandate.
Next: The Case of the Idiosyncratic Signature and the Indecipherable Monogram