Why Collectors are Increasingly Gifting Significant Artworks to University Museums

The Benton Museum at Pomona College, Yale Art Gallery, Colby College Museum of Art, Indiana University’s Eskenazi Museum of Art, Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art and the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art all received major gifts of artwork in 2023.

From a tax standpoint, it doesn’t matter if you donate a work of art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or to the art gallery or museum of some small, out-of-the-way college. As long as the gift is accepted by the nonprofit institution and fits within its mission guidelines, donors receive the same charitable tax deduction when they file their returns with the IRS.

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George Abrams To Donate Landmark Collection To Harvard Museum
George Abrams donated the majority of his collection of Dutch drawings (about 350) to Harvard Art Museums, building on an earlier gift and making the institution’s Dutch drawings collection one of the most comprehensive in any U.S. museum. Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

However, most prospective donors want more than just a tax deduction, and satisfying that need can determine where they donate artwork. If they provide enough money to the institution, perhaps they can have a gallery or wing or whole building named after them. There may be bragging rights to the claim that their artwork is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan or Whitney or Guggenheim or wherever.

However, if their goal is for their donated artworks to be seen and experienced, a Metropolitan or Whitney or Guggenheim may be the wrong place to donate. That is because, in most cases, the gift is swallowed up in the massive permanent collection, much of which is stored in the basement or somewhere off site, rarely if ever to be displayed as there is only so much gallery space and a lot of competition for those walls. Your Claude Monet may mean the world to you, but the Met already has 137 of them.

Word is getting around that the college museum might offer a better deal, and a growing number of donors of artwork and other objects are giving significant individual pieces or whole collections to museums at colleges and universities. This year, for instance, Purdue University in Indiana received seventy-four bronze Edgar Degas sculptures donated by Chicago businessman Avrum Gray—including a copy of La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans valued at around $21 million—while Colby College in Marin received twenty-eight lithographic prints by John Marin from the estate of his widow, the most recent in a series of donations of the artist’s work by one or another member of his family. These gifts have made the Colby College Museum of Art a principal focus for those studying the art of John Marin and, according to Jacqueline Terrassa, director of the museum, “exemplify how those with no formal ties to Colby as alumni or as parents have shaped our holdings in important ways.”

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Last year, Miami area-based diagnostic radiologist Gamaliel R. Herrera donated thirty works by contemporary artists from Puerto Rico to the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. Two years ago, Bennington College was gifted 500 works of contemporary art from the collection of art patron and curator Melva Bucksbaum, and investment advisor Peter Lynch donated twenty-seven paintings and three drawings (including works by Pablo Picasso, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, Albert Bierstadt, Martin Johnson Heade, and Jack Butler Yeats) valued at $20 million, to Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art. These artworks would seem to be natural fits at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Whitney, but they went instead to college and university museums.

University museums may offer donors more

Less prestigious perhaps than the most prominent private and public museums, the academic-based institutions may afford other, and generally quite welcome, benefits. Those benefits include having the works on display more often; having the pieces studied by students, faculty and scholars; and generally having those objects included in the academic curriculum of the larger institution.

In 2022, New York City dentist Avo Samuelian, a collector of contemporary art by artists of color and LGBTQ artists, for instance, donated approximately twenty works to the art museum of Fairfield University in Connecticut after a meeting with its director, Carey Weber. Weber “explained how the museum is for the benefit of the students and how their students are mandated (even their nursing school students) to spend time and learn about the works in their collections. I thought this was an extremely novel approach to teaching and immersing students with contemporary art. During my education as a chemistry major and a dental student, I was never introduced to contemporary art. I thought it was a great idea.”

Gamaliel Herrera, who did not attend Florida International University, told Observer that he selected the Frost Art Museum for his gift, because “Florida International University has one of the largest ratios of students of Latinx and Puerto Rican origin in the country. It is also the academic institution that confirms the largest number of degrees to Latinx students in the country. These considerations were important for me when choosing a new home for the artworks.”

For his part, Peter Lynch said his “main aim is to inspire Boston College students and Museum visitors through the diverse collection of paintings and drawings from twenty of the world’s most acclaimed artists.” Items donated to the college museum will be on view much more often than if they had gone to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, he acknowledged.

Success in attracting notable gifts of objects to college and university museums builds on itself. William B. Crow, director of the Lehigh University Art Galleries in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said that “it can be strategic to highlight a donor’s collection, both as a means to further engage the donor, but when appropriate, to use it as an example that others might follow.  In my experience, donations certainly raise awareness, and at times spark others to be more philanthropic with their collections and resources.”

Museums at a number of colleges and universities—most notably, Harvard University, Princeton University, Williams College and Yale University—have long been a source of pride and active collecting of various categories of artistic, historical and scientific interest, but a growing number of large, medium and small institutions have jumped on the bandwagon. They see that many of their alumni, a principal source of financial support, not only have amassed wealth but also objects to which they are strongly attached. Soliciting gifts of objects strengthens ties between alumni and their alma maters, which may also lead to cash donations. “Universities are recognizing that their museums are sources of donor cultivations other than just cash cultivations,” said Jordana Pomeroy, director of the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami. When the university’s alumni and development offices schedule meetings with past graduates who have art collections, “I ask them to bring me along.” And, they do.

Art collectors shop around for the right museums

Academic institution curators and directors look further than just alumni for gifts of objects, seeking donors who may be considering a variety of museums. Carey Weber noted that while Fairfield University was founded in 1942, the art museum only came into existence in 2010, so “many alums don’t even know we have a museum.” An affiliation with a particular college or university is not the only reason for donating artworks or other objects. She noted one “donor who has recently given us a number of contemporary works and also donated to the Whitney.”

Collectors, particularly those nearing retirement age, are shopping their objects, listening to appeals from museum directors far and near. The big-name institution that cannot guarantee donated artworks will ever be on display is less and less attractive to them.

Joseph Becherer, director of Notre Dame University’s Raclin Murphy Museum of Art in South Bend, Indiana, stated that he seeks out donations “all over the country, from some people who only know of Notre Dame in terms of its football team but who have pieces that would fit very well in our collections.” His pitch to these people includes incentives that private and municipal museum directors cannot make.

San Francisco philanthropist and art collector Pamela Joyner shows her art at home on Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in San Francisco, Calif. At left is a sculpture from Kevin Beasley (b.1985) called Aurora, 2018, house dresses, kaftans, t-shirts, du-rags, ri
San Francisco philanthropist and art collector Pamela Joyner has, with her husband, made significant gifts to both university museums and major museums. Photo By Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

One of those donors, San Francisco-based 1973 Notre Dame alumnus Fred Giuffrida—who with his wife, prominent art collector and activist Pamela Joyner, built the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of African-American art—made a promised gift of a painting, Epiphanic Mass (Epitaph) by Julie Mehretu, for the Raclin Murphy’s entranceway. “We always ask ourselves when donating any artwork, ‘Is there a commitment to this work?’” he told Observer. The Mehretu, he added, is intended to be a permanent fixture at the museum, “and we have been assured that it will be seen.”

Prospective donors often fear that the artworks they give to a museum are likely to disappear into deep storage and “will not be made accessible through regular exhibitions in a gallery space, and I can assure them that they will,” Becherer said. “Collections can have a meaningful life after they leave someone’s home.” Items may be displayed in one of the museum’s object study rooms or in a teaching gallery or in the regular galleries. He looks to close the distance between the university’s museum and the academic departments by developing exhibitions of single pieces or collections of objects that are pertinent to classes being offered around the campus. Among those departments are art history, English, American and European history, chemistry and political science. “Faculty want to get out of the classroom and offer their students experiences with art and other objects,” and students respond favorably to these outings, he noted, adding that a 2022 survey of graduating seniors found that 91 percent of them came at least once to the museum.

The trend of college and university museums competing (successfully) for major artworks and whole collections stems in part from the greater investment by their host institutions over the past generation, which has led to increased professionalism on the part of the directors, curators and other staff, according to Kristina L. Durocher, president of the executive committee of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries and director of the University of New Hampshire’s Museum of Art. Additionally, these museums see their mission as not only serving the academic community but the larger community. According to a recently conducted survey by the Association, “about half of academic museums serve small cities or towns, and are the principal cultural attraction for their community.” That broader vision appeals to prospective donors of objects who “not only want their collections to be seen, they often value the impact and scholarly and teaching utility the objects provide.”

Another selling point is that almost all academic museums are free to the public, making visits by members of both the academic and local community much more likely than at major city institutions where entrance fees run between $20 and $30 for adults.

Museums at colleges and universities rarely have any acquisitions budget, but that has made them more willing to accommodate would-be donors who are insistent that their donated artworks not just go into storage but be seen and studied. Michael Darling, founder of the New York City-based Museum Exchange, which helps collectors find institutions that would be appropriate for the donations they wish to make, said that “our donors are often really excited by the proposals they receive from university museums because they know there is an educational imperative behind that museum, and that their artworks may be the first ones that students see. So they love the impact. And yes, that often means more visibility than disappearing into the storage of a major metropolitan museum.”

Giuffrida said that his gift to Notre Dame University of the Mehretu, as well as another promised gift—a Michael Armitage painting—to Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, “is no criticism of other [non-academic] museums.” He and his wife have made gifts to the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. However, Simon Levin, a collector and chair of the tax and financial planning practice group at Sills Cummis & Gross PC in Newark, New Jersey, who has long collected and donated vintage and contemporary photography to museums, had a harsher view of private and municipal museums. “After a very long period of collecting and making important donations largely to the great institutional museums in the country, we have found ourselves gravitating more to college and university museums,” he said. One of those institutions is the Frost Art Museum. “The university museums seem to be expanding their horizons at a time when many public museums seem to be struggling with defining or redefining their missions. Often, to be politically correct, [public museums] are narrowing their missions at the expense of their patrons and the communities they serve, particularly the children who lose context and history.”

Why Collectors are Increasingly Gifting Significant Artworks to University Museums