Last July, the The American Folk Art Museum in New York received a generous bounty: 40 works of art by Horace Pippin and Bill Traylor donated by former AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons and his wife, Laura. The donation came in the classic way: Laura Parsons, longtime administrator and generous patron of the museum, knew it would be a transformation, as AFAM director Jason Busch later described.
Such a perfect match between donor and institution is rarer than you might think. Often times, collectors seeking to donate works of art – for cultural prestige and, of course, tax benefits – approach a museum to find that what they are offering does not match the museum’s needs. . The cost of storage, insurance and preservation can make a work of art more difficult than it is worth. Many gifts are thus refused, leaving voluntary donors in the doubt where to offer them. Meanwhile, the gaps in the collections of other museums are not being filled.
In 2020, Michael Darling, longtime chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, quit his job to start Museum Exchange, a company aimed at remedying such problems. Work to match the mutual needs of donors and museums, the company concluded its second cycle of donations and opened its third at the beginning of last July. So far, Darling said, more than 80 museums in the United States and Canada have signed up.
Museums purchase an annual subscription, access the online platform and browse a catalog of available works of art that remain visible for three months. As Darling knows from his own experience in museums, “Curators and directors are so busy we have to give them so much time just to look at things and figure out what to write a proposal for.” From the proposals submitted, donors choose the museum that best defends their work.
Darling said he remains out of the decision, but hopes “small museums have as much of a chance as a museum in a big city.” Once matched, Museum Exchange helps the donor go through the donation process, from tracking museum acquisition meetings to securing and shipping the artwork to the museum and obtaining an appraisal. which in turn produces a tax form.
For now, Museum Exchange — Darling and a handful of employees who work remotely from locations in the United States and Canada — are focused on modern and contemporary art, encompassing everything from paintings and sculptures to photographs, prints, drawings and video pieces. Donors must provide documents attesting to the authenticity and ownership of the items.
“One of the fun parts of the job,” Darling said, “is talking to curators and directors,
and find out what they collect so that when we chat with collectors and donors, we can factor that into the conversation and really try to keep up with what items would resonate with our museum network. These are mutually beneficial conversations.
Darling does not imagine himself disrupting the traditional process of donating to museums, but rather improving it. “Let’s say you in New York have a piece of art that just doesn’t fit the collection strategy of the museum you approached. Or maybe they already have 10 paintings by this artist. All of a sudden you’re out of luck because this is the only museum you have a relationship with. But you come to us and there is a museum in, say, Des Moines that might like this room, a museum that you have no relation to. This opens up the possibility for you as a donor. And now this museum in Des Moines has a relationship with you. It benefits both sides. We are already seeing this play out.
“Wow, I wish I had thought of this!” That’s what Catherine Shotick thought when she first heard about Museum Exchange. After the Oklahoma City Art Museum (OKCMOA), where Shotick is curator, got an account, she scoured the first catalog of available works and found several pieces of interest. She wrote a proposal for one of them, a painting by American artist Ethel Fisher from a West Coast collection, in which she highlighted the museum’s strong representation of artists who, like Fisher, have started in the abstract expressionist style then moved on to figurative and representational work. Oriental # 2, from 1957, “fits in perfectly with that,” Shotick said. “It’s abstract, but there are hints of representative imagery. The curator also pointed out in her proposal that the museum has works by Will Barton, who had an influence on Fisher. “There are arreally cool story of these two artists, and I was able to make these links in the proposal. Eventually, the museum obtained the painting, along with photographs by German artist Oliver Boberg, from another donor.
“It definitely linked us to donors that we would never have otherwise [known about]”Shotick said.” It opened up more doors. “She added that writing the proposal also helped her become familiar with the OKCMOA collection, which includes around 7,000 works of art.” By researching Ethel Fisher and making those connections, I learned more about our own collection. So it’s beneficial in a number of ways. I liken it to a dating site for a museum and donors: we are we both love.
Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, also drew the matchmaking analogy. His institution received a sculpture by Edward Kienholz and a painting by Jonathan Lasker via Museum Exchange. (The museum has other pieces by Kienholz, which provide context for the short story, but lack Lasker’s works, a significant void in his contemporary collection.) “It’s a wonderful initiative,” Tinterow said. “It created an opportunity to enjoy works that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. One of the biggest advantages is that collectors almost always want to move things to a place where they will be seen and be of use to something. And it is difficult. I have worked with dozens of collectors throughout my career in museums “—Tinterow was curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 30 years before coming to Houston—” and placing objects is not easy , especially for collectors who have amassed substantial collections, not only in value but in number of objects.
While at the Met, Tinterow realized that ‘the most valuable commodity in the New York art world is not money, it is not art, it is is museum real estate. There is a lot of money, there was a lot of art. There wasn’t a lot of museum space. And that’s not just for New York. Museums elsewhere may not be hemmed in among the skyscrapers, but they are still limited. “Museums must exercise good judgment in what they are willing to accept so that all museums themselves are not overloaded with objects that they do not intend or need to exhibit, and that the objects themselves do not fall in the dark. “
Darling sees his service as a this can be useful not only for collectors and museums, but also for dealers and artists. Dealers, he said, “are often approached by collectors who wish to donate a piece and ask the gallery to make these calls on their behalf. It can be a lot of work, and it can really strain the relationship these dealers have with museums. When it comes to artists, Darling has heard artists and fields cling to a lot of work and think about where they would like it to go.
The future of Museum Exchange seems to be to expand both what they offer and who they offer it to. “I’m thrilled to see how he’s growing up,” Shotick said. “Right now they offer a lot of contemporary art. I can’t wait to see if they’ll include more historical works that will open the doors even more. “
Darling has such plans in store. “We can imagine expanding into other types of material that would mirror the departments of an encyclopedic museum,” he said. In the shorter term, he makes his business more than a museum exchange by reaching out to a network of other non-profit institutions, such as libraries, hospitals and universities, which could also be interested in receiving art. In this way, he said, for a given work of art, “if we tackle museums, we have other options to look at.”