Preserving the artist's heritage
Approaching Museums

by Dr. Michael W. Schantz, Former Director, Woodmere Art Museum

Museums are highly structured organizations, governed by policies and a defining mission, with their own unique way of conducting business. As non-profit entities, they have a privileged tax status that subjects them to certain ethical standards not similarly applied to profit enterprises. The acquisition of art is a primary mission of a museum and this activity, in particular, is governed by strict procedures and legal obligations. The following items may be of interest to the artist who wishes to interact with a museum with thoughts of placing works into its permanent collection, either through purchase, gift, or bequest. They are in no particular order.
    •    Museums want to know in advance that art is being bequeathed to them. Despite the wishes of the artist as stated in his or her will, there is no legal obligation on the part of the museum to accept a work of art unless some prior agreement has been made.?
    •    It is important to know the specific collecting area of a museum you wish to approach. Many museums have a narrow acquisition focus, which may preclude them from accepting a particular gift or bequest, which is not consonant with their mission.?
    •    Unless there is a special relationship with a particular museum’s curator (that is, the person directly in charge of the collections) it is advisable to contact the director’s office first, preferably in writing followed by a phone call. Museum directors are executives who appreciate not being surprised by an unscheduled visit or an inopportune phone call. Advance warning gives them an opportunity to discuss and review an inquiry with the appropriate staff, prior to a conversation with the artist.?
    •    Museums prefer to have as much detailed background information on a work of art as possible, beyond the basic title and date. Does the work have an exhibition record? Did it undergo conservation? Is there something special about the technique or fabrication? Under what circumstances was it created??
    •    The condition of the work of art is a factor. Many museums will not accept works of art, which are not in good condition and therefore would incur conservation expense.?
    •    Generally, museums that are in the business of exhibiting the work of local artists will also be most interested in purchasing art from, or in receiving a gift from, a local artist.?
    •    Even for those museums that may be interested in acquiring examples of an artist’s work, there may be a limit to the extent that they can do so; that is to say, space and resource limitations restrict the number of works they can accept. It is unlikely, for example, that a museum will accept the responsibility for housing the entire estate of an artist.?
    •    Keep in mind that all works of art acquired by a museum must first be approved by the board of trustees before they become part of the permanent collection. Works of art are important assets and the trustees, as stewards of a public institution, are ultimately responsible for their care and management.??Neither a curator nor a director can independently guarantee that a work will be entered into the permanent collection.