How art gets generated.
For museums and other institutions confronted with the sometimes onerous restrictions that donors place on major gifts, forever can be a very long time.
In Tennessee, Fisk University, facing possible closing, needed court permission to sell a stake in an art collection that the artist Georgia O’Keeffe had donated with the proviso that it never be sold.
And now the Brooklyn Museum is asking a judge to bypass the wishes of Col. Michael Friedsam, who ordered before he died in 1931 that his collection be kept together. Conservators there discovered that a quarter of his 926 works were not of museum quality, were misattributed or, in a few cases, were fakes. So now the museum is trying to unload those unwanted gifts as if they were a Christmas fruitcake.
Handling what is known in the philanthropic world as donor intent is vexing for many institutions. How do you adhere to a donor’s wishes when they seem to interfere with the best interests of the institution?
“A respect for donor intent is essential for philanthropic integrity,” said Adam Meyerson, president of the Philanthropy Roundtable, an association dedicated to protecting benefactors’ interests. However, he added, “You’re not serving donor intent if you go bankrupt.”
The tension between contributors and institutions is hardly new, but it has gained a higher profile in recent years. The weak economy has shrunk museum budgets, while technology or evolving tastes have led curators to reassess once venerable works. Institutions, which need money or space as artworks fill their basements, often look to sell items donated with the stipulation that they never be relinquished.
When it came to the Clyfford Still Museum, the City of Denver in effect argued that it had to violate the Stills’ wishes in order to fulfill them. Still’s wife, Patricia, gave Denver 2,400 of her husband’s works after his death with the understanding that the city would build a museum dedicated solely to his work and never sell or lend any of the art. But in 2011, six years after Ms. Still died, when fund-raising for the museum slowed, Denver received court permission to auction four of the paintings.
Amid cases like these, consultants and nonprofit organizations have stepped up efforts to help benefactors generate donations and wills that better ensure that their wishes are honored long after their deaths.
“I’m certainly getting more phone calls” about donor intent, said Jeffrey J. Cain, in 2008 a founder of the consulting firm American Philanthropic. Mr. Cain, who wrote a free guidebook titled “Protecting Donor Intent: How to Define and Safeguard Your Philanthropic Principles,” said the issue had “really captured the attention of conservative-minded donors, especially those giving gifts to the academy who worry about how those gifts would be managed over time.”
Philanthropy experts say that donors across the political spectrum are concerned about preserving their vision. But examples of foundations that have leaned left after being created by die-hard capitalists, like the carmaker Henry Ford and the oil magnate J. Howard Pew, have prompted several conservatives to speak out more loudly about the importance of donor intent.
“The Pews would spin in their graves,” states one of several case studies featured in the Philanthropy Roundtable’s library, which details the liberal organizations and causes, from radical environmentalists to campaign finance reform, that are financed by the bequests of conservative capitalists. “It hurts the growth of philanthropy if the foundations that donors set up proceed to ignore or violate the most cherished principles of their founders,” Mr. Meyerson of the Roundtable said.
Some philanthropy veterans said the interest in creating foundations with a limited life span could stem from growing concerns about donor intent. “Any perpetual foundation is going to be liable to drift,” said James Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation.
Mr. Piereson was once executive director of the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, which was devised to spend all of its assets within a generation of Mr. Olin’s death in order to prevent mission drift.
“Donor intent cannot realistically be guaranteed beyond a generation,” Mr. Piereson said.
Museum administrators say they do their best, but that violating a donor’s wishes is sometimes unavoidable.
In perhaps the most famous of these cases, the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania convinced a judge a few years ago that its very survival depended on breaking the terms of its founder’s trust so it could move his magnificent art collection from suburban Merion to downtown Philadelphia.
Mr. Meyerson said the Barnes case illustrated how some restrictions could sabotage a donor’s desires. He pointed to a requirement that the Barnes invest in only Treasury bonds, which hamstrung the foundation’s finances. Even now, several months after the new Barnes opened its doors, the case remains a rallying point among an assortment of advocates in the philanthropy, legal and arts worlds who have campaigned for tighter compliance with donors’ wishes.
For the Brooklyn Museum, the issue is also financial. Colonel Friedsam’s will stipulated that his collection of paintings, porcelains, historical weapons and costumes never be split up. But although the inferior objects will not be displayed, museum administrators say they will, nonetheless, cost tens of thousands of dollars to store because the museum is running out of space.
In most states the attorney general is responsible for monitoring donations to charitable organizations, and in New York the attorney general has entered the case in support of the museum. The court has said that if the museum wants to split the collection, it must first try to find out whether any of Colonel Friedsam’s alternate heirs are still alive.
Since donations are often a museum’s lifeblood, most go to great lengths to fulfill a donor’s desires faithfully. The Museum of Modern Art transferred two van Gogh drawings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998 because a donor had directed they be given away after 50 years.
And visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where few things in the darkly lighted galleries ever change position, can see the frames and the ragged edges of four paintings that were cut out and taken during a brazen 1990 theft. In part because Mrs. Gardner’s will ordered that “the general disposition or arrangement” of her collection be maintained, curators have chosen to leave the frames on exhibit. Many museum administrators agree that Mrs. Gardner’s instructions have created an unusual gem of a museum.
Nonetheless, most would no doubt prefer that donors leave the decision-making to them, emulating the stance of John D. MacArthur, who once told a trustee of his foundation: “I figured out how to make the money. You fellows will have to figure out how to spend it.”
By Patricia Cohen, NY Times Art & Design, February 4, 2013.
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