Estate Planning 101

14 December 2015

Estate Planning 101
by Kirsten Nash

NEW YORK — Artists regularly share their personal struggles over the practicalities of maintaining an artistic practice. It is not easy to set up a studio, find time and resources to make work, then overcome the hurdles of getting the work out into the world. Creating a life that supports a creative practice and allows for opportunities to participate in the larger dialogue of contemporary art can take an enormous amount of effort and organization. Any rewards or recognition are usually few and far between, and yet the minor successes we have in the studio make it all worthwhile. Eventually, these successes accumulate into a legacy.

The myth that an artist’s work is not truly valued within their lifetime, but later, posthumously, may have been true for
Van Gogh and Cezanne, but is clearly not the case in today’s art market. There is an entire industry devoted to preserving the legacies of the fortunate few. If you are represented by a major gallery and collected by museums, there is a good chance that there will also be a machine in place to preserve your work and its value. For those of us who never reach that level of career success, the responsibility for planning what will happen to your work after your life is over is not so simple.

I recently toured Donald Judd’s home and studio at 101 Spring Street, in New York. This Landmarked artist home, studio, and exhibition space for his private collection is considered to be the birthplace of his “permanent installation” concept. I encourage every artist to take the tour offered by the Judd Foundation, it is revelatory. The building was purchased by Judd, in 1968, when he was 40 years old, and already established as an international artist. It was here that Judd began to curate and establish the context for his historical positioning. Walking though his most intimate spaces, every room and object was considered and chosen for what would eventually become a public space. This is an extreme example of taking control of one’s legacy, but an instructive one.

No one lives forever, and at the very least, someone will need to clean out your studio after your death. Who do you want to have that huge responsibility, and who will be willing to take on that project? Hiring a lawyer and creating a Will does not solve the issues that we face concerning what will happen to our life’s work after we pass away, but it is the first step in preparing for the inevitable. A work of art, valued or not, can survive for a very long time, and there is a chance, however slight, that someone will find value or interest in it at some point.

This past year, I decided to take the first steps and create a Last Will and Testament. Part of this process was thinking about my work, studio, and who I would trust to make decisions in my absence. It also includes having some of the hard conversations about what options are realistically available to me. I did some research to try and find out if any organizations or services are available to the less than famous, but serious artist. I did not find much.

Eventually, I found the most extensive information in, A Visual Artist’s Guide to Estate Planning. This document is based on a Conference Co-Sponsored by The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation and the Judith Rothschild Foundation. There are some resources listed, but mainly the document raises the particular issues that face an artist when estate planning. The paper advocates keeping an organized archive and building on the relationships that you do have, such as local libraries or colleges that have shown your work. You never know if they might be interested and willing to take some of your archive. I hope you find it a good starting point for proactively identifying who will be entrusted to execute your wishes for distribution and disposal of your studio and archive when the time comes.