Life is Short, Art is Long

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 8.22.47 AM“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.” ~Abraham Lincoln

It’s not something we like to think about, but collectors, as well as artists, need to face the fact that owning art, regardless of whether it is yours, or it is acquired, comes with certain responsibilities.  There are the obvious responsibilities concerning documentation, insurance, protection, care and handling.  There are even laws that govern the destruction or modification of art.  But very little attention is given to the question of the ultimate disposition of the art.  Simply put,  what is going to happen to it after you die?  In the best cases, pre-planning has arranged for appropriate donations to museums or gifts to family or friends. But, too often while we are making plans for who gets the diamond earrings and who will take care of Fido, we forget to plan for the management of our greatest asset.  Michael Mendlesohn, an attorney, has written a book, Life is Short, Art is Long.  There are a number of financial issues and tax implications that are discussed and need to be addressed, and this book is a good place to start. Failing to plan can end up costing your heirs as much as 70% of the value of your collection at the time of your death if items are sold through traditional public sales channels without the proper planning. Advisors have a fiduciary responsibility to protect and preserve the value of your assets, but few financial advisors consider your art an asset.  Once you have addressed the financial concerns, it’s time to think about the ART.  I’ve had too many calls from bewildered relatives who don’t have a clue about what to do with mountains of artwork left behind after an artist dies.  It becomes so much of a burden to those unfamiliar with the art world, the artwork will often end up donated to the local thrift store or sold at a garage sale. If this sounds familiar, and it is something you have not thought about, get ready.  These are the steps you need to take immediately!

1. Make sure you have a complete inventory of all the work, including images, sizes, dates, medium and brief description.  There are a number of good computer programs out there for artists and collectors, find one that works for you. Keep instructions about the location of the program with your important documents.

2.  For any established artist, this should also include a provenance…a record of where the art has been, i.e., exhibitions.  This becomes important for any appraiser who will first look to the sales and exhibition history to determine a value for the work.

3.  Create a notation system that indicates which pieces you consider “major.”  A layperson will not know the difference between the work that is important to you, and work that is less important. Another alternative is to appoint an executor who is familiar with your work to make those decisions for you.

4.  Think about institutions you would like to support and decide if you want the work to be sold, ( auctions or galleries) donated (hospitals, college and university galleries, museums, any non profit institution) or kept in tact.  Viola Frey decided she wanted her work to continue to be exhibited and sold after her death, and created The Artists’ Legacy Foundation to ensure the safekeeping of her entire body of work.  Obviously, this requires a tremendous amount of planning as well as funding.

Developing a succession plan for your collection may take months and implementing it may take years. Nevertheless, the pleasure of finalizing your wishes during your lifetime, even though they may not be fully carried out until after your death, shouldn’t be undervalued. If you have worked all your life to leave a legacy of your work, do you really want to burden your family with it’s disposition?  Careful planning can ensure that your artistic vision will survive for generations.


5 Responses to “Life is Short, Art is Long”

  1. Jaime said:

    Apr 25, 11 at 4:31 am

    Oblivion is the goal. I arrived first.
    (El olvido es la meta. Yo ai llegado antes)
    J. L. Borges. Epitafio de un poeta menor.

    Thinking ahead, it somehow conforts me to think that in the future, if some of my paintings end up in a garage sale or a second-hand store, people passing by will stop, have a second look, and wonder who was the guy who painted that.
    For me that will be enough as postumous glory. But that´s me who has read too much Fernando Pessoa…

  2. Betty Pieper said:

    Apr 26, 11 at 8:14 am

    This is a straightforward and timely article. I might add that the issue of both physical possession and extended copyright should be in your will and documents from the US Copyright office/LOC should be kept with an attorney or in a safe place for access by heirs. Autobiographical information and handwritten artist statements can be added to the “provenance” so wisely mentioned above. Also, since most of us can not hope to leave a funded trust, instructions for storing and designated funds for that purpose could provide precious time for heirs to consider their options.
    Betty Pieper

  3. jo allebach said:

    Apr 27, 11 at 6:54 am

    WoW! I never knew that dying was so complicated.But it is something to think about. I will definitely get on these projects. Thanks for the info.

  4. Anita L. Rodriguez said:

    May 10, 11 at 8:21 am

    Thank you for this timely topic, one I’ve not seen addressed too often. But my husband is currently in the hospital and I’ve had a brush with death before (I’m the artist), so I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. Thank you!

    Anita L. Rodriguez

  5. Susan A. Rudolf said:

    Jun 12, 11 at 10:03 am

    Very useful! Thanks! Susan