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Museums Acquire Some Artworks Through Swaps

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Museums are full of stuff, and they are always trying to get more. Sometimes, they buy objects for their collections (from dealers, auction houses and collectors) and, more often, they receive things as donations. However, there is a whole realm of other ways of acquiring additional items for the permanent collection. It could be a promised gift that a donor plans to make at some point in the future, or it could be a long-term loan that turns into a permanent donation. Some collectors donate objects as "fractional" gifts, allowing the museum to assume an ever-greater claim to the title over a period of years, or museums may receive a "partial" gift that is often a portion of the purchase price of an object the museum is buying (the museum pays for the rest). Getting a bit more complicated, one also finds charitable remainder trusts in which a collector places an object a museum wants for its collection in a trust (the museum buys the piece from the trust, allowing the collector to avoid paying federal capital gains and state taxes on the sale, and that money provides interest income for the rest of the collector's life, after which the museum is the recipient of the remaining cash). And then there are swaps: You give me that painting from the collection and I'll give you this one that I own. These don't happen a lot, but they do take place.

One example of a swap took place a couple of years ago, involving the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which acquired an assemblage painting by folk artist William Hawkins titled "All About Eve" (c. 1989) through part gift, part purchase ("five figures," according to David Brenneman, the museum's chief curator) from, and part trade with, New York gallery owners Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco. The Ricco-Maresca gallery represents the Hawkins estate, and "All About Eve" is "one of Hawkins' major pieces," Frank Maresca said, and would have been priced at $100,000 had selling the work been uppermost in the dealers' minds. "We very much wanted this painting to end up at a major museum, and the High was high on our list." Because of the cost of the painting and the fact that "budgets are tight at museums these days," Maresca noted, the gallery "figured out a way to make it happen. We made a sizeable chunk of it a gift and get paid in part with a smaller Hawkins in the museum's collection." The smaller Hawkins, titled "Buffalo," thus moved from the High's permanent collection to the Ricco-Maresca gallery, in addition to some cash.

"This is a win-win-win situation," Maresca said. "We were able to make a gift to the museum; we got the painting we wanted into a museum, and we got a painting."

Art gallery owners report that exchanges regularly take place with long-term collectors, as the buyers seek to upgrade their holdings. Trades between art dealers and museums, or collectors and museums, are not done as frequently, although they are not altogether unusual. "They don't tend to get a lot of attention, but exchanges between museums and dealers happen quite often," Ashton Hawkins, former general counsel at the Metropolitan Museum, said, "especially in the furniture and decorative arts areas. Some smart decorative arts dealer goes to a curator and says, 'I have a table that's better than anything you have,' and the curator looks at it and sees the dealer is right. They negotiate, and the end result is that the museum gets the table, turns in another -- perhaps one that it purchased previously from that same dealer -- and gives a credit for the difference between the two tables." He added that dealers and curators will negotiate the value of the object that the museum is offering in exchange, "or maybe they'll bring in an independent appraiser," and the item is deaccessioned in the same manner as any other in the museum's collection.

The fine art field also has experience in this realm of dealing. New York City gallery owner Paula Cooper did an exchange "a couple of years ago" with a museum, which had been donated two similar works by Carl Andre (an artist she represents), and another Manhattan dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes recalled having made trades with museums on two separate occasions. "It's a logical thing to do," Mitchell-Innes said, "and it makes sense for a museum to propose it."

"I've probably done a dozen or so exchanges with museums over the years," said James Maroney, an American art dealer in Leicester, Vt. and former head of the American paintings department at Sotheby's. "They make a lot of sense. Museums have mountains of stuff in their basements, which just takes up space. They're in limbo." Maroney claimed that the trades he has made with museums have generally enabled these institutions to upgrade their collections, allowing them to have a better example of an artist's work that they can exhibit in place of lesser pieces that might stay in storage permanently.

In most instances, museums swap objects with other museums, and their deaccessioning policies specifically refer to these types of transfers. Guidelines at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, for instance, state that "[t]he Museum may trade or exchange works with other institutions," while the deaccessioning policy of Mirianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art in Manhattan, Kan. includes the provision that an "object can be offered back to the donor, donated to another institution, traded for a piece from another institution, sold at public auction, sold through a reputable established dealer, or destroyed." The Collections Management Policy of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan claims that "[a]cquisitions to the Collection may be made by purchase, gift, fractional interest gift, bequest, or exchange," making no specific requirement that trades need take place only with other nonprofit institutions.

In the 1990s, England's National Gallery and Tate Gallery swapped 66 mostly French paintings -- 14 went from the National Gallery to the Tate, which sent the National Gallery 52 works -- based on the understanding that the Tate's collection will exclusively exhibit artwork created after 1900, while the National Gallery will display art produced before that date.

In economically straitened times, exchanges help museums acquire pieces that they might not obtain otherwise. Finding creative solutions to the problem of how to place an object into a museum collection is part of the job description of an art dealer. New York City gallery owner Renato Danese described one sale of an artwork to a museum that was "structured over a 13-month period" in order that allow the institution to pay for it from the budgets of three different fiscal years. "You do what you have to do, when you want to get something done," Danese said.