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Do museums need a shopping network for art donations?
Michael Darling, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

by Graham Bowley

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For art collectors interested in donating a work, one worry has long been that their gift, a valuable, possibly beloved, painting would end up in a museum basement, where many items from permanent collections reside, unseen.

For museums, who depend on the generosity of donors, the concern has been that it’s difficult to compete for works against the most prestigious and popular of their kind.

“People know about major museums like the Whitney, the Met and the Guggenheim,” said Carter E. Foster, a curator at Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. “But they don’t know us.”

So curators like Foster and collectors, like Michael Straus, are cautiously optimistic about the potential of a new venture, the Museum Exchange, a subscription online catalog of works up for donation that aims to put collectors looking to find homes for their possessions in touch with museums looking for items that support their mission.

“It’s really most valuable for me to donate a work of art where it’s perceived to fulfill a need,” said Straus, who is using the exchange to offer a single series comprising 60 individual art pieces from the first decade of the current century.

The exchange, still a fledgling business, has drawn interest from about a dozen institutions and published its first quarterly catalog last fall. It features 32 works by artists like Jonathan Lasker, Richard Hunt, Wangechi Mutu and Diana Thater that have been put up as potential gifts by 15 donors. Donors pay a variable processing fee that the exchange would not disclose.

There is a $1,000 a year subscription charge for museums and so far museums as small as the Blanton and as large as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, have signed up. For the time being, the catalog focuses on modern and contemporary artworks, according to David Moos, a private art adviser who is one of the co-founders of the exchange

The business plan involves ultimately charging collectors for other services like appraisals and shipping fees, but at the outset it relies on museum subscriptions. There would seem to be a need for a significant number of subscribers to fund operations, and the operators declined to say how many of the 12 museums signed up so far have paid the subscription fee.

The exchange will be led by Michael Darling, who announced his departure this week as chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

“Museums are going through a period of change that’s really only just beginning,” Darling said. “We want to help museums develop a broader picture of what contemporary art looks like by having access to different parts of the country.”

Museum acquisition budgets have rarely been large enough to allow institutions to compete on the open market against wealthy collectors. This disparity has only grown in recent years with escalating prices for high profile contemporary art and has even been made worse by the pandemic. So relationships with donors are particularly important. Yet donors, though often motivated by the tax deductions that come with museum gifts, have been upset to see their gifts sometimes shunted aside — so upset, in fact, that some owners of the most prized collections have been able to get museums to sign agreements committing to exhibit the donated art.

Foster said he had identified a contemporary drawing in the catalog that he hopes will be heading to his museum in Austin.

Under the exchange process, curators interested in a work have to write a pitch describing the nature of their institution and how the work fits. Collectors get to see who is interested in their works before deciding where it will go.

Cathleen Chaffee, chief curator at the Albright-Knox, said the site could help build relationships with potential patrons beyond their local region. “We hope this is an opportunity to meet like-minded collectors,” she said. “Collectors not only can bring philanthropy. They are bringing their own community and expertise.”

The site faces a number of hurdles, one of which is that many donors develop long-standing relationships with particular museums, which court them and provide them special access and other perks.

“Those sort of people will not want their work to end up just anywhere,” said Karen Boyer, a private art adviser in Miami who has helped collectors place works with museums. “They want it to end up on the wall of an institution that they like and where their friends will see their name.”

However, Tim Schrager, a collector based in Atlanta where he is a board member of the High Museum of Art, said he would try using the exchange. Recently, he said, he wanted to donate three works, but the High could only take two, and he had to look for another home for the third, by Dutch artist Folkert de Jong. After much calling around, he placed it with a museum in Birmingham, Alabama.

In the future, the exchange could make that process easier, he said. “Museums will be able to see it,” he said, “and determine whether it fits.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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