Downsizing and Charitable Donations

Fellow appraiser Nancy Alison Martin sent me this interesting article from the NY Times on downsizing and the increase in donations to museums and historical societies. It is being reported that many collectors who are now downsizing are donating works, some relevant to an institutions missions, while others, well not so much.  Bottom line, it is good news for appraisers.

The NY Times reports
On a tour of the climate-controlled vaults of the Minnesota Historical Society — where the bulk of the institution’s 6,000 works of art are stored — Brian Szott pointed to a pastoral painting of a farmhouse blanketed in snow.

Like the vast majority of the pieces in the society’s collection, all of which are about Minnesota or created by Minnesotans, this painting, completed in 1910, was donated and is now in storage on the lowest level of the society’s six-story museum and library.

Mr. Szott, the society’s head of collections and curator of art, chuckled at the idyllic Minnesota winter scene. “We’re not getting much of this anymore,” he said of the artwork.

Instead, he pointed to an oddly familiar-looking piece of ceramic sculpture by the artist Judy Onofrio with the curves and fissure of a human buttock. “The Butt,” he said. “It’s actually untitled, but that’s what the staff here calls it.”

Donated art has trickled in steadily since the institution was founded in 1849. But the 1975 untitled sculpture is part of a striking surge in the number of works that have been donated to the society over the last five years, from 22 in fiscal 2012 to 77 in the fiscal year that ended in June.

Like “The Butt,” many of the recently donated works are lively and irreverent, characteristic of much art from the mid-1970s to the present. And unlike patrons of the past, many of whom posthumously bequeathed the art to the society, many of these donors are alive and well.

How to account for the increase? Mr. Szott says that works donated over the last five years have tended to come from older adults in the process of downsizing or decluttering. “It’s a huge shift in possession going on, and it’s going to affect the whole art world,” he said.

David J. Ekerdt, a sociologist and gerontologist at the University of Kansas, affirmed the trend. “It makes perfect sense,” said Dr. Ekerdt, who has studied the downsizing movement. “Baby boomers are offloading all kinds of things.”

While only 4 to 5 percent of people over 60 move to a smaller dwelling in a given year, about a third of the over-60 population will move over a 10-year interval, Dr. Ekerdt said. And that number is expected to increase over the next decade as the rest of the baby boom cohort moves into prime retirement age — now a quintessential time for decluttering and giving things away.

Donating to an institution is one of the easiest offloading strategies for possessions, he said. “You can, No. 1, give it to a family member or friend; 2, sell it; No. 3, donate; or No. 4 or 5, store it or trash it,” he said.

Those were the choices facing Kurt Johnson, 58, and his mother, Dolores, 84, who had collected art in the 1970s and 1980s. When she moved from her St. Paul home to an apartment in 2013, she gave Kurt some paintings he liked that ended up on the walls of his printing business in Minneapolis. Last year, he said, he sold the business, and he and his wife found themselves in the process of selling their home and moving into a townhouse.

“The question became, what do we do with the artwork?” Mr. Johnson said. “It was kind of, ‘Sell it, store it or donate it.’” The paintings were mostly by Minnesota artists, some of whom his mother had known personally. “It had more historical than real value, so, yeah, it made sense donating it to the Historical Society,” he said.

Dolores and Kurt Johnson ended up donating five prints to the society earlier this year. “I did have them appraised,” Dolores Johnson said. “We’re not talking about vast sums of money here. But conservation is terribly important. And it’s out of respect for the artists. I would hope they would think that I was being responsible.”

Moving consultants say that decisions about art can be especially difficult.

“Art is one of those things where it’s more likely they’ll say, ‘I don’t know what to do with it,’” said Terri Fischer, a certified senior moving and organizing specialist in Oakton, Va. Unlike, say, wedding photos or decades-old bank statements — where the keep-or-discard option is usually pretty clear — what to do with a painting or two bought at a yard sale or on a vacation 30 years ago is more problematic.

“I tell my clients: ‘It may have served its purpose for you. It gave you pleasure then. Now it might be time to recirculate it,’” said Ms. Fischer, whose company is called Consider It Done.

While many such works may have little monetary value, there are exceptions. Ms. Fischer told of one client who had an old painting of a dour-faced woman on her wall. No one in her family wanted it. An appraiser determined that the painting was from the studio of a well-known 17th-century Baroque painter, and it sold for over $25,000. (At the request of the client, Ms. Fischer declined to specify the client’s name, the painter or the exact sales price.)

Such finds are rare. But many of the piece recently donated to the Minnesota Historical Society have value because they provide windows onto a place and time. These include a series of paintings vividly depicting cheesy rides at the 1982 Minnesota State Fair; photographs of antinuclear rallies in 1985; a collection of cartoonish images drawn in 1987 on mailing envelopes that, in a self-promotional nod, include the artist’s street address in Minneapolis, and a 1990 print of what appear to be computer chips.

Mr. Szott inspects and assesses every work offered for historical value.

He and others believe that the flood of works that may be coming to institutions around the country in the next decade could broaden the definition of postmodern art, which is loosely defined as art from the mid-1970s onward that ran counter to the precepts of traditional Modernism. “We’re talking about what would be the first generation of collectors of this kind of work,” said the art historian Karl E. Willers, director of the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y.

Whether the works were executed in Minnesota or elsewhere, the historical significance of them is often in how they represent a time of increasing diversity in gender and race among artists, and new attitudes about the purpose and permanence of art.

“You might have had it on your wall for a few months in college,” Mr. Willers said. “You held on to it, you got older, and now it’s part of an archive.”
source: The NY Times 

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