A Retirement Account for Artists: At 10 Years Old, the Artist Pension Trust Is Bigger

But can it make money?

Renato Danese, the dealer, sees a larger problem in more artwork potentially being dumped onto the market, which would have the effect of diminishing prices rather than raising them.

One challenge for the trust, now and going forward—and especially in today’s strong market for contemporary art—is balancing the competing interests of artists and their dealers. Artists may be willing to contribute their work to the trust—it will be returned to them if the trust fails, so they lose nothing—but their dealers lose out on pieces that they could otherwise sell immediately. Limiting the contributions to 20 over 20 years has lessened the pain for the dealers, who will act as the agents for those artworks when they are eventually sold, albeit at a lower, secondary-market commission.

The selection committee also has a hand in picking the works that the artists contribute, Mr. Ross said. “You don’t put in the artist’s best work,” he said. “That shouldn’t be hidden away in storage but should go into the most high-profile collection possible. The artist shouldn’t put in a mistake, either. The work should be good, solid, representative work of that moment.”

Artists are encouraged to apply, but selection is competitive, Mr. Shniberg said, noting that less than 5 percent of all the applicants are approved by the regional committees. In 2013, roughly 400 artists joined the trust, representing 70 countries. More than 90 percent of the accepted artists are represented by a gallery, and “many already have had their work shown in a museum.” 

Not all has been rosy in the trust’s first decade. Some artists have dropped out, and during the recent recession, Mr. Shniberg said, “we received requests to sell works from artists who need money.” Artists may leave, but sales won’t be rushed, Mr. Shniberg said. “We are patient and will only sell when the value is maximized.” The contract that artists sign also informs them of the same, although he noted that “in a few cases, we have made loans against the artwork to help certain artists.” Time will tell if their artworks ultimately make them, and the trust, money.

A Retirement Account for Artists: At 10 Years Old, the Artist Pension Trust Is Bigger