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What are Museums Doing with Donated Art?

May 25, 2018
Andreja Velimirović is a passionate content writer with a knack for art and old movies. Majoring in art history, he is an expert on avant-garde modern movements and medieval church fresco decorations. Feel free to contact him via his Linkedin profile:

Although we don’t really like to think about it that often, there are only three outcomes that ultimately await every private collection.

The art can be willed to heirs who, if they decide to keep it, will have to face inheritance taxes of up to 40 percent of value. Alternatively, artworks can be sold, but the heirs will still face a capital gains taxes of 28 percent. Finally, the collection can be donated to a willing institution, which permits a sizeable charitable deduction on the income or estate tax returns.

Looking at these three options, it’s easy to assume that donating artworks is the best choice of them all, right? Well, probably, but it’s far from an ideal one.

While many will presume that gifting works of art to institutions like museums is a straightforward procedure, the process of donating artworks to museums is surprisingly riddled with stumbling blocks and loopholes, all of which present potential headaches to donors. Today, we’ll be discussing an array of facts and problems anyone considering gifting their collection should be aware of, all with the hopes of shining as much light as possible on the tricky process of donating artworks to museums.

An art collection on display
An art collection on display, via

Donating Art 101 – Understanding What You’re Getting Yourself Into

The most common complaint you’ll hear from art donors is that the museum that received their collection is not displaying their artworks. Instead, the institution decided that the gift would be better suited for their storage facilities, where they will be held until the curators deem them relevant.

A far less common but considerably more serious complaint is that a museum decided to sell the donated art[1], which is usually done in order to raise funds.

Usually, such conflicts happen because donors don’t understand how museums operate, nor how they treat donated art – or any art, for that matter.

When a museum accepts a donation, it instantly becomes a part of what is usually referred to as the museum’s permanent collection. This seemingly simply fact is the core of all the misunderstandings that occur between donors and museums. Most people gifting artworks assume that the permanent collection is made up of all the art in a museum when, in reality, the permanent collection exists as a continually changing and evolving body of art, shifting with and adapting to the museum’s current requirements.

In many cases too, individual pieces of art in that permanent collection remain there only as long as they’re relevant to the collection as a whole. In other words, just because a donor feels like the donated works are remarkable does not mean the pieces meet the same standard, as far as the museum is concerned.

A collection formed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria while he was Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1647 to 1656
A collection formed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria while he was Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1647 to 1656, via

The Fluid Nature of Museum Collections

While curators may be quick to point out that the museum intends to keep the donated art in the collection for a long time, they also point out that they themselves are not infallible.

Tastes and cultural trends change, museum staff comes and goes, the direction of collections alter, museums acquire works of art that are superior in quality, some artworks turn out to be not as important as curators first thought they were, and so on and so forth. What’s relevant today may be completely irrelevant tomorrow, so your relinquished item may not be as vital to the institution as you may want – or expect – it to be.

As an art donor, it’s incredibly important to understand what you’re getting your artworks into – just like everything else in our society, museums change over time and it’s almost guaranteed that whatever you donate will not be looked at the same at some point down the line. Accepting this fact will go a long way in helping you with sinking in the fact you are no longer the owner of the artwork.

One of the rooms for the Tannenbaum Centre for European Art
One of the rooms for the Tannenbaum Centre for European Art, via

Asking for the “Unrestricted Status”

The most efficient way museums make sure aforementioned complaints end up as just complaints is insisting that the donors of private collections agree to relinquish the right of making specific future requests regarding their donations. This is commonly refereed to as having the unrestricted status.

With it in place, curators have complete control over the art and can do with it as they see fit. Donors, on the other hand, can make no demands, such as asking that the work be shown within a certain time period or that it should be included in a catalogue.

However, if an artwork has the unrestricted status, it does not mean that the donor is not entitled to ask for something – it just means that the museum staff has the right to deny the request without consequences.

Modern Makonde carving in ebony
Modern Makonde carving in ebony, via

The Problem of Donating Entire Collections of Art to Museums

One of the most common issues curators accepting donations run into occurs when donors insist that the museum accept their entire collection, while museums only want the most relevant or important items within the assortment. On one hand, the collectors’ egos are at stake and they are not thrilled with the idea of breaking up the collection, while the curators are unwilling to acquire redundant works of art. It’s one of those rare situations where both parties appear to be in the right.

After all, accepting every single artwork that comes through the door makes no sense for museums, especially when you consider the costs of storage and space limitations. So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure that you’re aware of the reason why the museum wants to break your collection apart and try not to be offended.

If you can’t find it in you to break the collection up, you can always try your luck with other museums. Chances are one of them will be willing to take on the entire collection, but probably none of them will be thrilled to do so.

Medal of Honor exhibit in Kettering Hall at the National Museum
Medal of Honor exhibit in Kettering Hall at the National Museum, via

A Word to the Wise

The bottom line here is that an art donor should never assume anything in terms of the future. Not only do donation policies vary from institution to institution, but a single museum’s policy is going to change over the course of time as well. Your best bet would probably be to simply accept the fact you have no real control over what happens with your art after you donate it – the best you can do is make sure the collection initially ends up in caring hands and hope things go well from there.

This means that being honest with curators about your desires and asking them questions is a crucial part of donating art without later regrets. Have curators explain their donation policies and tell you what the immediate future holds for your donations – studies show that they should be able to somewhat accurately predict what will happen to your art for at least two decades ahead. Just remember to keep your ego in check, as humility goes a long way in getting what you want here.

Finally, if you are not comfortable with giving your art to a museum for whatever reason, consider donating the pieces to charity. There are many charities that accept art donations, but be aware that they might look to sell them as soon as you get them through their front door.

With all of that being said, we should also mention that supporting museums is a vital bloodline of our art market, art history and overall culture. These institutions are dependent on the generosity of private collectors, so, whenever possible, make unrestricted donations and don’t worry about the ultimate fate of your art.

Instead, have some faith in our museum system and take comfort in the fact your art will be taken care of regardless of what happens.

Editors’ Tip: A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics

Grounded in a series of case studies, A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics confronts types of ethical dilemmas museums face and explores attempts to resolve them in chapters dealing with accessibility, disability, and diversity; collections; conflict of interest; governance; management; deaccessioning; and accountability and transparency. Suitable for classroom use as well as a professional reference, A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics is a comprehensive, practical guide for dealing with ethical issues in museums.


  1. Grant, D., Jan 24, 2018, Should Museums Be Allowed to Sell Donated Works of Art?, The Observer [May 1, 2018]

Featured image: An art collection on display, via All images used for illustrative purposes only.