This past July, the American Folk Art Museum in New York was the recipient of a generous bounty: 40 artworks by the likes of Horace Pippin and Bill Traylor gifted by former AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons and his wife, Laura. The donation came about in the classic manner: Laura Parsons, a longtime trustee and generous supporter of the museum, knew that it would be transformational, as AFAM director Jason Busch later described it.
Such a perfect match between donor and institution is more rare than you’d think. Often, collectors looking to donate artworks—for cultural prestige and, of course, tax benefits—approach a museum only to find that what they’re offering doesn’t mesh with the museum’s needs. The cost of storage, insurance, and conservation can make a bestowed artwork more trouble than it’s worth. Many gifts are thus declined, leaving willing donors uncertain where to offer them. Meanwhile, gaps in other museums’ collections go unfilled.
In 2020, Michael Darling, longtime chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, left his job to start Museum Exchange, a business meant to remedy such problems. Working to match the mutual needs of donors and museums, the company concluded its second gift cycle and opened its third early this past July. So far, Darling said, more than 80 museums from across the United States and Canada have signed on.
Museums buy a yearly subscription, access the online platform, and browse through a catalogue of available artworks that remain on view for three months. As Darling knows from his own experience at museums, “curators and directors are so busy that we need to give them that much time just to look at the things and figure out what to write a proposal for.” From the proposals submitted, donors choose the museum that makes the best case for their piece.
Darling said he stays out of the decision, but hopes “that small museums have just as good a chance as a big-city museum.” Once a match is made, Museum Exchange helps the donor track the gifting process, from following the museum’s acquisition meetings to securing and shipping the work to the museum and procuring an appraisal that in turn produces a tax form.
For now, Museum Exchange—Darling and a handful of staffers who work remotely from locations in the U.S. and Canada—is focused on modern and contemporary art, encompassing everything from paintings and sculptures to photographs, prints, drawings, and video pieces. Donors must provide documentation of authenticity and ownership of the pieces.
“One of the fun parts of the job,” Darling said, “is talking to curators and directors,
and finding out what they’re collecting so that, when we’re out talking to collectors and donors, we can bring that into the conversation and really try to track objects that would resonate with our museum network. These are mutually beneficial conversations.”
Darling doesn’t see himself disrupting the traditional process of museum donations so much as enhancing it. “Let’s say you, in New York, have an artwork that just doesn’t fit with the collecting strategy of the museum you’ve approached. Or maybe they already have 10 paintings by that artist. All of a sudden, you’re out of luck because that’s the only museum you have a relationship with. But you come to us and there’s a museum in, say, Des Moines, that might love that piece, a museum you have no relationship with. It opens up the possibility for you as the donor. And now, that museum in Des Moines has a relationship with you. It benefits both sides. We’re seeing that play out already.”
“Wow—I wish I’d thought of that!” That’s what Catherine Shotick thought when she first heard of Museum Exchange. After the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (OKCMOA), where Shotick is a curator, got an account, she perused the first catalogue of available works and found several pieces of interest. She wrote a proposal for one of them, a painting by American artist Ethel Fisher from a West Coast collection, in which she emphasized the museum’s strong representation of artists who, like Fisher, started in the Abstract Expressionist style and then switched over to figural and representational work. Oriental #2, from 1957, “fit right into that,” Shotick said. “It’s abstract, but there are hints of representational imagery.” The curator also pointed out in her proposal that the museum owns works by Will Barton, who was an influence on Fisher. “There’s a really nice storyline of these two artists, and I was able to make those connections in the proposal.” In the end, the museum got the painting, as well as photographs by German artist Oliver Boberg, from a different donor.
“It’s definitely connected us to donors that we otherwise would never have [known about],” said Shotick. “It’s opened more doors.” She added that writing the proposal also helped her get more familiar with OKCMOA’s collection, which comprises around 7,000 artworks. “As I was researching Ethel Fisher and making these connections, I learned more about our own collection. So it’s beneficial in multiple ways. I compare it to a dating website for a museum and donors: we both like each other.”
Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, also made the matchmaking analogy. His institution received a sculpture by Edward Kienholz and a painting by Jonathan Lasker through Museum Exchange. (The museum owns other pieces by Kienholz, which provide context for the new one, but is lacking in works by Lasker, a significant void in its contemporary collection.) “It’s a marvelous initiative,” Tinterow said. “This created an opportunity to avail ourselves of works that we otherwise would not have known about. One of the greater advantages is that collectors almost always want to move objects into a place where they will be seen, and will serve a purpose. And that’s difficult. I’ve worked with dozens of collectors throughout my career in museums”—Tinterow was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 30 years before coming to Houston—“and placing objects is not easy, especially for collectors who have amassed substantial collections, not just in value but in terms of number of objects.”
While at the Met, Tinterow came to realize that “the most precious commodity in the New York art world is not money, it’s not art, it’s museum real estate. There’s plenty of money, there was plenty of art. There wasn’t that much museum space.” And that doesn’t just go for New York. Museums elsewhere may not be landlocked among skyscrapers, but they’re still finite. “Museums must be discerning in what they are willing to accept so that all the museums themselves are not burdened with objects that they have no intention or need to display, and so that the objects themselves don’t fall into obscurity.”
Darling sees his service as one that can be helpful not only to collectors and museums, but also to dealers and artists. Dealers, he said, “are often approached by collectors who want to donate a piece and ask the gallery to make these calls on their behalf. That can be a lot of work, and it can really tax the relationships those dealers have with museums.” As for artists, Darling has heard from both artists and estates holding on to a lot of work and thinking about where they might like it to go.
The future for Museum Exchange appears to be in expanding both what they offer and to whom they offer it. “I’m excited to see how it grows,” said Shotick. “Right now, they’re offering a lot of contemporary art. I’m excited to see if they move on to include more historical works that will open up the doors even more.”
Darling has just such plans in store. “We can imagine branching out into other types of material that would mirror the departments at an encyclopedic museum,” he said. In the nearer term, he is building up his business to be more than a museum exchange by reaching out to a network of other nonprofit institutions, like libraries and hospitals and universities, that might also be interested in receiving art. That way, he said, for any given artwork, “if we strike out with museums, we have some other options to look at.”