Collectors promised art worth more than $1bn to US museums in the past year. But some of the most generous donations came with strict terms and conditions attached, raising questions about private collectors’ influence on public institutions. As prices for contemporary art reach dizzying heights, “the leverage of collectors… has changed radically”, says Christopher Bedford, the director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Massachusetts.
The plastics manufacturer Stefan Edlis and his wife Gael Neeson donated 42 Pop art and contemporary works to the Art Institute of Chicago in April. Valued at $500m, the gift is among the largest in the institution’s history. The collection was sought by museums across the globe, but the Chicago-based couple were won over by the Art Institute’s offer to keep the gift on public view for 50 years. The works, which are due to be unveiled in January 2016, will be shown together for 25 years, after which they can be mixed in with the rest of the collection. James Rondeau, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, notes that the “terms of the gift are extremely generous when it comes to installation, rotation, loan, and as unlikely as it seems now, even eventual trade.”
Gap year The collection of the late Donald Fisher and his wife Doris, the co-founders of the Gap clothing company, is being lent by their family to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the next 100 years with similar conditions. The museum will present a dedicated display of the Fisher Collection, which numbers more than 1,100 post-war and contemporary works, when the institution reopens to the public in spring 2016. After one year, curators can introduce other works, but the Fisher Collection must comprise 75% of the installation.
These kinds of arrangements are not new. Collectors have long wanted to make sure that their gifts do not end up in storage. In 1954, Walter and Louise Arensberg donated their collection of pre-Columbian and Modern art to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the condition that a large portion of the works would be shown together for at least 25 years. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), among others, lost out because it refused to accept their terms. In 1969, Robert Lehman bequeathed 2,600 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, with the stipulation that they always be shown together. Lehman’s Western European art remains on display today in a dedicated wing.
Givers vs getters US museums have always been reliant on private donors—but wary of accepting conditions that could prove onerous. Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art and a former senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), wrote in a 2013 essay: “It is a ‘givers’ rather than a ‘getters’ market, though the ‘getters’ are constantly creating new inducements to gain the allegiance of the ‘givers’”. A static display “robs the curatorial staff of the opportunity to rethink the place of specific works” and “threatens to condemn… the donor to a prematurely dated and unnecessarily stale permanence”. The Lehman works at the Met, he added in an interview, “would be better hung with the parts of the collection they respond to”.
Not every restricted gift hinges on presentation. Jerry Perenchio, the chairman of Univision Communications, promised more than 45 works spanning the 19th and 20th centuries to Lacma last year. The gift, which is valued at $500m and is due to take effect after his death, is contingent on the completion of the museum’s $600m expansion. Perenchio said at the time that he hoped his decision would “ensure that [the architect] Peter Zumthor’s building is built in a timely manner”. The gift had “some additional conditions” that remain confidential but were approved by the board, a spokeswoman says.
Unrestricted gifts Most museums do not have a strict policy on restricted donations, although the Association of Art Museum Directors recommends that gifts be “unrestricted wherever possible”. (MoMA, which does not accept restricted gifts, is one exception.) Sally Yerkovich, the director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, says donors’ restrictions pose ethical issues when they infringe “on the integrity and intellectual independence of the museum”.
Many donors recognise that “art objects… have a life outside their owner at a particular point in history”, says Sharon Corwin, the director of the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine. Paula and Peter Lunder donated 500 works of American art to Colby in 2007 on the condition that the institution would expand its exhibition space by 10,000 sq. ft. They placed no restrictions on how the works would be displayed.
Christopher Bedford, who oversaw the unrestricted gift of 40 works from Peter Norton to the Rose Museum in March, says museums must weigh “the relationship between impact and opportunity in terms of what you are willing to absorb”. For the Art Institute of Chicago, the “commitment… to display the [Edlis-Neeson] collection for 50 years is by no means a burden”, says the curator James Rondeau. “We made our selections precisely because they are works we will want—and we believe future stewards of the collection will want—always on view.”