Estate planning for the Professional Artist
Having an artist pass away is a terrible loss to any gallery especially if it’s unexpected. There are widespread economic tidal waves for all those in the path. The artist’s family, collectors and the gallery representatives are all put into uncharted waters if there has been no forethought before the tragic event.
I have lost two artists in twenty years as a gallery owner and I would expect there will be more if I’m lucky enough to stay in business another twenty years. I recently released a fictional murder mystery Paint by Numbers the plot line follows what happens if an unscrupulous dealer takes advantage of an expected artist’s death (or precipitates it as in my novel). While the book was pure fiction there is some insight to be gained in avoiding problems with your estate if you’re an artist. Don’t put your loved ones and the galleries that represented you into a whirlwind of confusion by not thinking ahead. If your over fifty and making a living as an artist you need to read this blog, take it to heart and do some early estate planning.
It is imperative you take precautions to outline how you want your estate handled once you’re gone. This should include price structure recommendations and distribution strategies after your death of your remaining artwork. An accurate inventory with photographs of all your work while your still alive is very helpful to all involved and can prevent the estate from loosing track of artwork you may have located in a variety of galleries across the country or even internationally. Set some kind of guidelines, even if rough in nature, as to what price structure should be followed when you’re gone and how the remaining artwork should be distributed. This will eliminate many of the problems your estate will potentially have. Just because an artist dies, even at a young age or unexpectedly, it doesn’t necessarily mean the work will go up in price especially if the remaining artwork is mishandled. If there is a large estate and sizable chunk of the work comes out all at one time it could bottom the value of the art, conversely if the work is raised to unrealistic values immediately it might shut down interest for the remaining work as collectors view the estate as creating a frenzy, gauging the market and in some cases the end result might deprive the heirs of expected longtime support from the estates remaining artwork. Turning off collectors dead or alive is never a good thing.
Obviously each estate will be different depending on the art, value and the needs of the estate and its heirs. This is why it’s imperative as an artist you take responsibility for what you are leaving behind, your art. Unless you want a free for all after your death it’s best for all those involved to have a frank discussion with family, lawyers and the dealers you trust and respect. These details should be spelled out in writing, the better for all involved. Your artwork is what you spent your life creating and you may have very specific ideas where and how you want it distributed. You may want some specific museums to get certain pieces, and if this is the case then write this in your will. Just saying it in life to your family or favorite museum director isn’t enough; it needs to be in writing. You may want pieces left to unborn grandchildren or great grand children; this is your chance to make your wishes heard. Maria Martinez, the great San Ildefonso potter, gave her children and grandchildren her pots while she was alive. This was her way of leaving something behind for a rainy day. I have seen more than one new roof paid for fully decades later by an artist who understood the value of her art.
As a general rule from what I have seen in estates that have been handled appropriately, there can be a seamless transition. Thoughtful consideration of how to distribute the remaining art works; price structure and future representation will be some of the most important aspects to workout in advance. Art is a business, whether we want to admit it or not, and establishing appropriate price structure (just like when you are alive) is also important after your gone. Making large increase in prices can often shut down an interested market for an artists work, and if the artist was prolific there will probably be plenty of work on the secondary market to fill the needs of the collector bases which could circumvent an aggressive estate executor, family member, or executor who does not understand the art market. Prices don’t always go up.
If the estate is small and/or the artist didn’t produce much work and there was significant demand while the artist was alive, slowly releasing work at ever increasing prices may be prudent until the floor is established of what the new price structure should be. In this case hanging onto artwork by the estate maybe more important then selling it too quickly. I’ve heard many an artist say they won’t be worth anything until they’re dead. This might be the case, but if you don’t think ahead it’s possible your work might be worth much less if it’s not handled in an appropriate and professional manner. The burden lies with the artist to consider the unthinkable, you won’t live forever but if you think ahead your legacy might. www.marksublette.com