An alumni just offered her collection of Degas sketches to your college. Now what?

Art donations are wonderful gifts, but they do come with some responsibility. Your institution is now responsible for shipping, installation, insurance, conservation, and paperwork like deeds of gift. You are the steward for the gifted object or collection. 

Museum directors from across the country provide advice on how to accept and process gifts from donors.

Be a part of the conversation early. 

To best support your institution, it’s important to be a part of the cultivation process and help shape the donations. 

Create a dialogue. Ask your donor for their expectations of how the piece will be exhibited.  Share your museum’s mission. Be honest with how you envision the gift fitting within your programming and collections management.

Sometimes you may find that a piece is not a good fit for your museum’s collection and it is best to nip it in the bud early rather than go down a long road only to say no later. 

Make your donor a partner.

Every successful fundraiser will tell you that it is critical to build relationships with your donors. Consider the donor a long-term partner. Include them in your development base. Include them in conversations if you’re comfortable doing so. 

Dan Mills, Director of Bates College Museum of Art, shares that “ a donor is someone who, by nature of entering a conversation about giving to the museum, is interested in the museum and its mission. The museum, in conversations with a donor, may discuss and plan how the donor may fulfill their interests whether that be supporting the museum, receiving recognition (or not), tax benefits, etc.” 

Work with College Advancement to cultivate strong connections so that you can always make asks after the initial gift. For instance, the donor may not have included funds for collection management or exhibitions with their gift. That does not mean you can’t ask for funds later. Museum directors share that donors can come back and donate supporting funds later down the road.

As Catherine Sullivan, Curator and Head of Collections for Janet Turner Print Museum at California State University, Chico, shares, “ I would rather err on the side of building a relationship that acknowledges the gift and creates future promise.”

Ricardo Mazal's "Marzo3.08," 1994. Gift of Keith Jantzen `80 and Scott Beth to Grinnell College Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Grinnell College Museum of Art.

Work closely with your College Advancement.

College Advancement is also responsible for solicitations and gifts. They will be your partners for gifts that may go to a new building, state-of-the-art storage facility or programming support. Be communicative about your museum’s needs. Have them at the table when discussing strategy. They build lasting relationships with donors and will be able to steer donors in a particular direction. 

Dan speaks to the partnership with College Advancement when stating, “Some donors have the possibility of being a long-term donor, for others a gift may be a one-time event. The museum and Advancement, by partnering on cultivation, will come to understand this.”

Similarly, if a donor makes a monetary gift, you want to make sure that College Advancement enters it so that it supports the collection as intended. 

Establish expectations with donation guidelines. 

Make sure your collection management policy is clear. The Grinnell College Museum of Art has a “how to donate art” set of guidelines. Director, Lesley Wright, shares that it helps specify that the donor should pay for shipping. Here’s an example from the guidelines:

  1. The donor(s) is/are responsible for the cost of shipping or delivering the art to Grinnell College once they have completed all of the paperwork. As an alternative, museum staff can arrange the shipping and the donor can make a cash gift to cover the cost.

    1. Museum staff can advise on how to pack the art and recommend shippers to use.

    2. Museum staff will instruct you on where to ship the art (or deliver it if you are bringing it yourself.)

Create a Collections Care Endowment.

Gary Libby, Director Emeritus of the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, explains why he helped establish a Collections Care Endowment to protect over 15,000 objects in a multidisciplinary collection—“I can attest to the need for ongoing and budgeted resources to care for collections in perpetuity.” And he continues on the benefits of the Endowment: 

The Collections Care Fund was able to address present and ongoing needs for the care of objects gifted by a super majority of our donors as well as gifts of exceptional importance to the museum from donors unable to contribute to the care of their gifts. As a matter of fact, the knowledge that the museum was committed to collections that it had received also generated capital funds in four specific instances that allowed us to build facilities to exhibit, house and to properly store collections when not in use or borrowed by colleague institutions.” 

The Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota also established an endowment for the care and management of its collection. The Museum worked with its Development staff and several donors of larger collections to set up a planned giving arrangement.

This necktie was a gift to the Goldstein Museum of Design from Donald Clay Johnson. Photo courtesy of the Goldstein Museum of Design.

Address an artwork’s unique needs. 

If a donation is a public art piece or a new media work, it most likely has unique challenges and needs that the donor is aware of. James Steward, the Director of the Princeton University Art Museum, shares that large-scale works of public art bring significant maintenance and care. Gifts of that nature can be understood as creating an unplanned-for burden on the institution. Collectors who own such works understand their particular realities and how the institution has to find new resources to support it. 

The Guggenheim requests cash funds for new media works of art. The funds are allocated to the future preservation of those works because of the unique and imminent conservation issues around them.  

If comfortable, make an ask. 

Some donors provide ongoing support or cash gifts along with their pieces. Some do not. 

Is it rude to ask for financial support along with the piece? There’s chatter about this among academic institutions. You can read about the debate here.

What about making a targeted ask? Is that OK? You can ask your donor if they’d like to support their donated piece in an exhibition. One curator shares that a donor was happy to contribute to an exhibition catalog that featured their gift. 

Create a “tipping fee.”

At the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota, they accept the object and then request a $200 “tipping fee” prefaced with, “please consider.” Director Lin Nelson-Mayson jokes that it is “very Minnesotan in encouraging good works rather than demanding action.”

The $200 is used to process the object into the collection. It covers cataloging and photography. The text of the letter is: 

“As a museum, Goldstein Museum of Design applies professional standards of care to all collection objects. This includes documentation and storage methods that enable objects to be retrieved for study by current students and preserved for future ones. Each object takes approximately five hours and costs $200 to process into the collection. Please consider a financial contribution to offset this expense for the objects you have donated.”

Remind your donors that they have tax forms to complete.

You and your institution are not responsible for your donor’s taxes. But at the same time, you want to avoid donors knocking on your door weeks or even days before April 15th. Don’t let your donor wait until the last moment to complete their tax forms for their donation. 

Don’t be afraid to be choosy.

Just as you are selective of the acquisitions of new works within your collection, be just as curatorial with donations. If the piece does not fit into your museum’s mission or you know it will just sit in storage for eternity, it’s OK to say no.

Track gift details in a collection management system.

You’ve completed all of the paperwork, the artwork has been received, and it’s installed in your gallery or preserved in storage. What should you do next?

Museums and galleries around the world use Artwork Archive to track object provenance, store documents like deeds of gift, appraisals and certificates of authenticity, and keep contact records for donors. 

You’ve gone through all of the work to accept and preserve this donation, make sure it will continue to be protected and accessible into the future with Artwork Archive’s easy-to-use online tools.

Be the best steward for your collection.

Accepting, and sometimes rejecting, donations is not as simple as a donor may think. If you set yourself up for success by following a few of these recommendations, your team (and collection!) will thank you.

Need a simple solution to manage your donations? Get started with a free 30-day trial of Artwork Archive.