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  • Artist Tips: Checklist for Planning Your Art Estate

    For more information about artist estate planning, read Estate Planning for Artists - Let Professionals Manage the Art


    The typical working artist produces hundreds of works of art during the course of his or her career; some produce many more. As with other human beings, the chances of an artist becoming deceased increase with age. In the unlikely event of your demise, have you thought about what would happen to your art? Have you thought about your legacy as an artist? Even more importantly, are you aware that regardless of how old you are, the way you treat your art now can enhance its value ($$ and otherwise) and significance as well as your profile and legacy for the rest of your life and beyond?

    By organizing and documenting your art and your career as an artist, you increase the understanding and appreciation that others have of who you are, why you are an artist, why you make art, what that art means, and how your creative process works. In so doing, you also increase the import, collectibility and likely even the monetary value of your art. And you can achieve these results by spending just a few minutes a day.

    To illustrate how this works, consider two identical works of art by the same artist (or two very similar works of art by different artists). One is signed and nothing more; the other is signed, dated, titled, and accompanied by a brief statement from the artist about how or why it was made, what the work's process involved, or what its intent or significance is. All else being equal, which piece would you rather own-- the one that's only signed or the one with the additional information? If you're like most people, you'd pick the latter. Would you be willing to pay a little more for the one with the additional information? If you're like most people, you'll likely say yes.

    With these facts in mind, start your documenting and organizing by taking an art census. If you're like most artists, you've got a lot of different things in a lot of different places. Account for as much of your art as possible. This includes art at home, in your studio, in storage areas, at galleries, and on display at outside locations. The same goes for information related to your art and your career as an artist including notes, show reviews, photographs, invoices, personal journals and the like. Third party correspondences from artists, friends, dealers and collectors are also worth gathering and organizing. Wherever it is-- drawers, file cabinets, boxes, albums, under the bed, in the garage-- find it, organize it, label it.

    No matter what you unearth or what condition it's in, don't throw anything away. To repeat: Don't throw anything away. Even if you can't believe you ever made or wrote it, think it's meaningless, stupid, bad, incompetent, has nothing to do with who or where you are now, reminds you of unpleasant events in your past, or is irrelevant for any other reason, don't throw anything away. Now bear with me here; I'll explain...

    The more significant an item is or was in your life, the more it should be kept. Everyone knows that. The problem with you making these decisions on your own is that sometimes emotions or lack of knowledge about how the art world works get in the way, and consequently, you throw things out that are critical to understanding and valuing your art.

    You know yourself so well that you need little or no explanatory in order to understand your art and your creative process, but those who know you less well need more, and those who hardly know you at all need lots. Best procedure is to show anything you've dug up and decided you don't need to at least one third party, preferably more-- and make sure they're informed professionals, not simply friends, relatives or acquaintances-- like gallery owners, curators, consultants, professors, historians, appraisers, or even attorneys who know how to assess and prioritize art and art-related materials. Rather than act unilaterally, let them suggest what to keep and what to throw out.

    Your completed census yields two basic categories of stuff: Art and art-related materials. Focusing first on the art, make sure everything is signed. If it's not signed, sign it. Dates and titles are also good to add, either on the fronts, backs, frames or bases of the art itself, or you can make a separate list of your art and date and title it there.

    When an artist passes away leaving behind unsigned art, that art has to be "signed" posthumously in order to authenticate it as having been done by the artist. In many cases, an "estate stamp" is made with a facsimile of the artist's signature, and unsigned pieces are stamped. Sometimes the art is estate-stamped and also hand-signed by a qualified third party; sometimes it is signed with the name of a qualified third party and not stamped; sometimes a qualified third party signs the artist's name instead of his or her own; sometimes a document or certificate is provided with each unsigned piece.

    From a marketing standpoint, none of the above outcomes are good. Dealers and collectors regard unsigned or posthumously signed works of art as less significant and desirable than signed works of art. The first question they inevitably ask when confronted with unsigned art or art signed other than by the artist is "Why didn't the artist sign it?" Additional questions follow such as "Did the artist not like it, think it was incomplete, not worthy of a signature, insignificant or inferior?" The moral of the story is to sign your art.

    In addition to signing, dating, and titling your art, seriously consider explaining it. Explaining your art means writing down how you make it, how your creative process works, what materials you use, what your art means, and other pertinent details. You can do this either piece-by-piece, or by groups or types of art. You don't have to write a novel here; a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs are often enough to convey the essentials. The more people understand about your art, the greater its perceived value from aesthetic as well as material standpoints.

    Never assume that people already understand and know everything they need to know about your art. Even when you explain it to people, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll remember everything you said or that they'll get it right when asked. Don't think that you'll remember everything about your art either, or be able to relate it whenever someone asks, or that you can write it down at any point in the future, because chances are really good that you can't and you won't.

    You know your art better than anyone else. If you don't record that knowledge now, sooner or later you're going to forget it. Furthermore, anything you don't end up writing down will eventually have to be reconstructed as accurately as possible... by other people. The bad news? There's no guarantee they'll get it right.

    Next, organize your art. You can do this chronologically, by medium, subject matter, by series or whatever criteria you choose. Eliminate anyone's having to guess when particular works of art were made, where they belong in relation to the rest of your art, or what they mean. Provide enough information so that anyone who asks can understand the continuity of your career through your art. Eliminate guesswork in the present; save third parties from having to piece together your career after you're gone.

    And don't forget to price your art-- all of it-- either on the art itself or on an easy-to-understand price list. Include current retail and/or wholesale prices as necessary. If you're not sure what to charge, ask or hire a dealer, gallery owner or appraiser to help you. Price too high and you lose credibility; price too low and you lose money. The more price information and options you provide, the better.

    When you're done with the art, organize the art-related materials. Do this by date, like you're putting together an autobiography of your career. If you come across gaps, fill them. Try to make the result as complete, seamless, preserved and easily accessible as possible. Take a lesson from Andy Warhol, perhaps the most thorough and obsessive self-documentor of all time. One of the most fascinating aspects of his legacy is the huge amount incidental information that enriches our understanding of his art and of his everyday life on so many levels.

    Seriously consider making an oral or video presentation about your art and career and include it with your art-related materials. No matter how old you are, you can start now. Make one per year if you want. As you inevitably age, these documents will become increasingly significant-- to you as well as everyone else. Even a relatively short piece can add immeasurably to your legacy as an artist. For example, record or make a video of yourself talking about your art and your life as an artist. Or have a friend or acquaintance make a video of you at work in your studio, answering questions about your art, meeting people at one of your openings, explaining a particular work of art, or performing art-related tasks. Or hire someone for a more professional presentation.

    Finally, have a plan for releasing and presenting your art to the public and make sure your executor and other relevant parties understand it. Major problems can result if art from an artist's estate is sold or dumped onto the market without a well-thought-out plan. No plan means that art gets offered or sold randomly and without exclusivity, shopped around to anyone who the executor thinks might be interested in showing or buying it, offered at arbitrary prices to anyone who wants it, or placed onto the market in bulk. No plan means that no one in the art business will trust how the estate is being run, word will spread, and gallery owners, collectors, and institutions alike will avoid the art. A poorly controlled estate is never good for an artist's reputation, so develop a long-term presentation strategy and make sure your heirs follow it.

    Additional points to keep in mind when planning your estate:

    * Provide your executor with complete contact information for your galleries, representatives, agents and other relevant parties along with instructions on how to work with those people. If you haven't found someone with art business experience to represent or handle your art, now is a good time to start looking.

    * Make sure your executor, heirs, galleries, agents and representatives understand what you want done with your art (without trying to micro-manage). Never assume that people automatically know what to do. Put your preferences in writing.

    * Give all concerned parties opportunities to ask questions, offer opinions, and make suggestions regarding the future of your art and your legacy as an artist.

    * Leave clear instructions on how your art is to be divided among family members, institutions, galleries and other relevant parties. Make sure that everyone understands what they're going to get and, if necessary, why they're getting it.

    * All instructions should be clear and sufficiently detailed in order to prevent infighting, arguments, or legal disputes over who owns or controls what, and how much that art is worth.

    * Attorneys may well be necessary here in order to structure and finalize agreements. Avail yourself of their services.

    Take charge now and control your art destiny.

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