What Should an Artist do With a Lifetime of Unsold Artwork?

Over the last several weeks I’ve had two people approach me, either in the gallery or via email, asking what they should do with a large inventory of unsold work. In one case, the question came from an artist in her nineties:

I was never a business person of any kind, never being able to promote my art or pursue galleries in hopes of getting them to represent me. The exhibitions I had both in the U.S. and abroad ( I had shows in Austria, Germany and Belgium) came about either by my winning first prize in juried art shows (which meant one-person shows) or by being “discovered” by someone who believed in my art and arranged an exhibition for me. Now it is too late for me with your help to try to overcome my shyness and/or aversion to the business part of art and start afresh. Being well into my nineties my problem has become one that up to now I never found addressed anywhere: What does one do with a large body of work at the end of one’s life other than giving away for free one’s most treasured work to friends who would enjoy them? What to do with the bulk of the remaining paintings? What are your thoughts on this?

In another case a man who lost his wife to illness last year approached me asking how he might share his wife’s unsold work with art lovers.

In the first case I would say that it is never too late to begin promoting and selling your work, grandma moses was selling art right up until her passing at the age of 101. Having said that though, we have to acknowledge that not all of us are Grandma Moses, and that there may come a time where it is no longer the artist’s desire to chase after sales, or it may simply not be possible to achieve success in that pursuit.

The second case, when the artist has passed away, poses an even more difficult challenge. There’s a general misperception among the public that once an artist dies, his or her work becomes instantly more valuable and sellable. Unless the artist was well-known and well-established, this typically is not the case.

So what is an artist to do when marketing no longer seems desirable or feasible? What’s an artist’s family to do when the artist passes away?

I’m afraid that I’ve only had middling responses to these questions. I see the wisdom in passing as much of the work on to the people who will appreciate it the most – friends or family – but it’s often the case that this would only take care of the disposition of a small amount of the total available work. What to do with the remainder?

Ebay? An auction? A community sale? Donation? Bonfire?

What Would You Suggest?

What have you seen artists do when they are retiring from the professional pursuit of their art? What have you observed artists’ families doing to disperse excess inventory? Share your observations, experiences and ideas in the comments below.

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138 Comments

  1. Personally…I’d just have a public art exhibition (donation on exit) and let everyone who attends take a piece home (if they wanted more than one piece, thats OK too) then family members can disperse the leftover art however they like. I’d rather my art went to someone who wanted to take it. If the person really cared about the art piece then their donation would probably reflect that.

    1. I am in an art quilting small group and quilters have lots of unused materials. The way it happens in some quilting circles in Iowa is the small group comes to the house, takes the materials and organizes a garage sale of the materials. The total profit goes to the survivors. The quilts not wanted by the family are donated to hospitals and other groups offering comfort to people. That way, the survivors do not have to deal with it. Famous quilters sometimes donate the quilts left behind to a quilt museum for preservation and education

      1. A hoarder recently passed away next door to one of our church families. A number of members assisted the hoarder’s family in cleaning out the house. Items were donated to the church. Much of the fabric and associated notions were being chucked into a dumpster. With permission, the church members ‘rescued’ these items and all was sold at a church garage sale making about $1,000. Think of the old saying, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

  2. This is a question I’ve been grappling with for years, since I first addressed the issue of a living will, etc. And I’ve never had an answer, so someone with a creative mind could possibly make a killing here! In my case, as a photo artist, I have thousands of digital files as well as my framed and unframed pro’s yet unsold. Perhaps some clever person will respond with a solution?

    1. Have you tried selling, either full prices or with a discount for bulk purchases to Hospitals (they usually have lots of bare walls to put framed photography and artworks on), hospices, aged care, retirement village’s and nursing homes, cafe’s/restaurants, hotels and motels … or if you can’t sell them, or don’t want to sell them for some reason than donate them to these kinds of places. At least you know that they then will be enjoyed and appreciated by the residences, staff and visitors in these facilities.

  3. An artist friend recently pointed out an even scarier aspect of leaving a large inventory of art to family. If you have a record some sales over the years, it is possible that the art could be evaluated based on those sales, and included as a part of the estate on which taxes are due!
    I am also in this position as we downsize. Frankly I am looking into donating some work to spaces like public clinics and homeless shelters, where art might brighten things up and hopefully make life a little more pleasant for staff, residents and visitors.

    1. HI Sue, I like your idea of donating to public spaces..shelters, possibly churches (if they have a sizable lobby) insane asylums too LOL! Seriously making these places brighter and more inspired is a positive community contribution.

      1. I can see an artist’s inventory of work being part of their estate after they pass. Donating work to public spaces for everyone to enjoy instead of leaving another tax burden to ones family is a great idea!

    2. When I moved from Portland, Oregon to Connecticut, I didn’t want to move my collection of work. I found a company that managed all the items I wasn’t moving and wanted to donate. They even took the sculptures — which were non-traditional to say the least. One of the charities they worked with had a client who loved my work, so they donated the work to that charity that then gave it to the client.

      1. I have read all this with considerable interest, having just done an inventory of my work and wondering what will happen to what doesn’t get sold or donated in my lifetime. I was thinking that perhaps the Art League that I founded which is now thriving, could hold such an exhibit and sale for my heir, but still it is a lot of work to hang a show as everyone here well knows. This motivates me to really look at ways to increase sales of what I have. And then there is the awful question of do I stop painting now since there are several hundred paintings I still have?

        1. I tried to find the name of your foundation and to see your artwork, but could not find a specific website. There were references to many “Joy of Art” websites in many locations but none specifically for Lynne Oakes. Is the name of your foundation the “Joy of Art” and does it have multiple locations. Do you have a specific website of your art, too?

    3. I know of an artist who writes “To [name of child] ” on the back of his smaller studies and other preparatory sketches. This way they are not part of the estate tax and the children inherit these works. His larger finished paintings sell well – I doubt he has much unsold inventory.

  4. I am in the middle of evaluating my work and deciding what do to with work that I no longer like and am no longer willing to sell. I see good choices:
    1. take them out of their frames, add gesso and start over;
    2 take them out of their frames or packaging, and, after consulting with local art teachers who may be able to use the canvas, either gesso or hand off the pieces so that students can decide how to re-use the pieces;
    3. have a similar conversation with art therapists in nursing homes. Ask how they might like to receive the re-usable paper and canvas.

    1. I have recently started painting over some of my older paintings that have not sold and did not make my heart sing. I have created some new works on these canvases leaving the past exposed…and I am so happy!

  5. My aunt lived in a senior community. When she passed away a year or so ago, the family put together a small show of her work in her apartment and invited her friends and others from the community to attend. The pieces that were not kept by the family were sold for a small amount and the proceeds went to the fund that supports social events at the community.

    1. I like your approach in dealing with your mother’s works. I have recently been told by my doctor that I might only have two or three years left and began wondering what to do with my new display panels, canopies, unsold art, etc. I certainly don’t want to leave a big mess for my wife and family to deal with. Your idea to donate the proceeds gave me the idea to have the charitable organization or other social groups hold a memorial sale to benefit their cause. I don’t care to have a funeral or anything. My wildlife paintings may be of benifit to our local wildlife protection groups, the raptor center, humane society and others. In the meantime I’m going to paint as much as I can and continue selling my work. I recently won awards in several art exhibits and continue to live each day like there’s no tomorrow. Having a plan for my paintings will certainly be helpful.

      1. Mr. Komarek…I commend your upbeat, kind and sensible thoughts on the future of your art work. We can’t take it with us, right? Your proposed solution seems perfect to me, and a sound approach for many.

  6. Indeed, in both cases posed here the keys are (1) creating provenance that drives a market for the work and (2) a dedicated person that has motivation to work full time on the artist’s behalf. If there are financial resources available, the artist or the estate can hire a professional and perhaps interns or family members to devote time to making it happen.

    Perhaps seeking out a meaningful venue in the town or region where the artist lives/lived (ie: a public library, small private museum, historical society, etc) there might be some interest in displaying an exhibition of the work. Inviting all of the artist’s friends to an opening and creating a benefit to charity would be prudent.

  7. Write a compelling biography of yourself or of the artist who passed. Try to discover the why about art. Why was it created? What were the feelings at the time? Then have an estate sale or auction. The balance donate to various museums the balance or donate the best works first. Hire a sales person on a commission basis. Part goes to charity, part to estate and balance commission to representative.

  8. I’m nor a hotshot artist, but I make jewelry which makes women prance with it. I know my friend and family circle, as well as some serious groupies enjoy my work. I am selling via a few galleries and have given to local charity silent auction events and to organization auctions which benefit scholarships, and got decent bids. Such charity auctions – that’s a good way to gradually deplete stocks.

  9. I knew of an artist husband and wife artist team that had a major slump during the down economy. They had a great reputation in the community but no one was buying art at the time. They wound up having a blow out sale were they literally put fire sale prices on their work. They sold out. The lesson was…the problem was price so they lowered to meet the audience’s pocket book. They cleared out the artwork, made some money and survived a bad economic time.

    1. I do this once a year. After storing lots of paintings, I decided to get out of the storage business. I work as many Christmas festivals as I can. I usually sell out the year and have a great Christmas with my family.

    2. Yes, I try to do the same. We have a local outdoor art show in town. Since I am represented by the local gallery, I price things way below what they’d sell for there. I also re-work things that haven’t sold and experiment on them. That is a good part of the learning process, and I end of improving the work and sell it. I have two outlets in which I can do this. I should be more aggressive and look for more.
      When I was learning, I sold everything. Now that I’m more accomplished, it’s much harder. But it’s the journey, not the destination–and it has helped me survive the current situation in the economy (somewhat)

        1. Sorry–I’ve been away. It is either work they couldn’t sell or stuff that doesn’t compete with what they sell. They’re fine with it.

  10. I have dealt with this issue recently, after receiving unwelcome medical diagnoses. I’ve been told by professional artists/curators that my art is worthy, and will likely appreciate in value over time. I continue to produce art, but am not well enough at this time to market. When I set up my will etc I discussed my dilemma with my attorney. He recommended I set up a trust that will own/manage my artwork – with my children plus an independent arts management person as trustees. My children, in consultation with the independent trustee, can sell/market my artwork as needed. Income from the trust can support me if/when i am disabled, and after my death income will support my grandchildren’s educations, and will be available to help my children in the event of their own unforeseen difficulties. If my artwork generates a lot of money, the money from the sale of art can be put into a principle reserve at the discretion of the trustees, thus creating what amounts to a private family owned arts foundation.
    I recommend a similar protection to anyone who is concerned with after disability/death disposition of profitable intellectual property, arts property or family business.

    1. Priscilla, thank you for sharing your solution. It would be ideal for our situation as well. All we are missing is the independent arts management consultant and an attorney who specializes in setting up such structures for artists. We live in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. If you do as well, would you feel comfortable recommending both your attorney and your arts management professional to us? And, if you are out of the Arizona area, then, JASON, could YOU please recommend two people locally who match Priscilla’s description? Thank you both, in advance.

    2. Best plan I have ever heard. I have been thinking of an eventual method of taking care of my inventory. Not everyone will be as caring about this problem unless they are involved in art someway. Also there is time involved in this kind of project and disinterested persons are not willing to take their time to do so.

      It gives us as artists a possibility to have our artistic endeavors moved on properly.

    3. actually, I asked my attorney about a trust for my work. he was enthusiastic and recommended details i had not considered, including an independent arts-knowledgeable trustee.

  11. I have been painting for 40+ years and have been blessed with sales. Things just seem to move out. I have 12 small works at the local gallery and eight large works on hand in the studio. If I had a larger inventory, I would probably donate some of them.

    1. Maybe this is the best option or the market get’s flooded with discounted art and the living artists struggle more. I have been tempted to destroy rather than give away, I want to leave behind only those pieces I love or others have loved enough to pay for,

      1. Liliana, I tend to agree with you. I am at a point where it is time to divorce myself from some of my early work. It makes me cringe to even look at it. If I need a reminder of what it looks like, I have digital images. But it feels like a purge is in order as new work is so much better. I really don’t want work out there that I don’t love. It is no longer who I am. You are right about the market being flooded with discounted art. What’s the point?

  12. I teach at a local art center, which holds an annual “Recycled Art Sale”. They get a huge amount of art donated by living artists who are clearing out their studios and also from estates. People are able to buy what they like at bargain prices, and it helps support the exhibitions and classes offered by the art center. It’s truly where art goes to die, which does make me sad in a way, but it’s a win-win for everyone.

  13. It could depend on your subject. A representational artist who painted the local area would probably be welcomed by area historical societies. Schools might also like “masterworks” for their students to look at as examples, especially if they came with judges’ commentaries from competitions. The only difference between this and the general “What to do with unsold work?” question is that you’re more likely to consider bulk options for getting rid of them–perhaps developing a relationship with someone you can “bequeath” your collection to for distribution–posthumous if it comes to that. There are plenty of “pickers” that poke through estate sales, and plenty of “no-name” paintings that fetch decent prices in auctions. In the case of someone who’s done well enough to land prizes in juried shows, and auction house might take a few–or all, depending on the size of the collection.

    1. THANK YOU, Cindee! What an excellent suggestion. The documentary is called, “Finding Vivian Maier,” and is available right now for live streaming on Netflix. It is an extraordinary and inspiring film that will help you realize the value of the body of your life’s work, and the arguments against disposing of it in a proverbial “fire sale.”

  14. All of these ideas seem excellent. I am going to print out this column and put it in with my “important papers” file, and let my husband know it is there. He may decide to go with one idea or another depending on timing and circumstances. I personally might donate many of them to the local Art Association for their benefit, or they could have an exhibit with sales to benefit the Art Association. I also like the idea of donating to an organization that could distribute to folks who couldn’t afford fine art. For works that I have accumulated and have simply decided they are not quite up to my standards, I keep a drawer full in order to experiment on the surfaces with new techniques. The rest I grit my teeth and toss into the garbage, as they are unusable at this point.

    1. Hi Kay, You might be surprised at how many people would cherish your “garbage”. Years ago, I was teaching art in a program for the mentally disabled. I did some demos and when cleaning up, I tossed the drawings in the trash. When the class was over, I discovered it was raining and realized that I had left my unbrella in the classroom. When I went back inside, I saw several people going through the trash and picking out what they liked. It made me realize the value of my work.

  15. I sure hope I am not done for a long time but am often thinking about this. I would like to leave a certain special pieces for my family but for the rest have an auction and then donate the money to a worthy cause. One could also establish a scholarship at an art institution.

  16. I am sorry to hear about your illness. I applaud your grounded approach to preserving your legacy. This is the best advice on this post, one that Honors all your serious hard work over your life time. thank you and best of luck.

  17. Perhaps as one nears the end of their life’s journey and knowing that we came into this world with nothing and leave with nothing may I suggest the whole lot be donate to a charity. That way money can be raised and to benefit others. Surely for the artist the pleasure was in the creation and knowing that their work will hang in homes of those that love it but may not have been able to afford it from a traditional gallery will then give the artist a sense of joy.

  18. I have children…Grandchildren…nephews and nieces and their children….and good friends. They all like my art. I will continue to try to sell my art but there may come a time when I’ll be giving it away. I’ve donated to charities before and they are happy for donated art. They either keep it on an office wall or sell it for money for the charity…such as my art The Dancers which went in a silent auction to get medical care for the children of Chernobyl. Art is a good thing. I’m sure whatever an artist does with their art is good karma…and hopefully there will be no one like Van Goghs sister who tied some of his paintings together to make a pig fence after he passed away. Art can be lost and damaged by ignorant & unappreciative people…

  19. Maybe give away the pieces to friends and family – those who want specific works. Put the rest on eBay and donate the proceeds to a charity of choice. Then you at least know that your work did some good in the world. 🙂

  20. If you have any type of resume, public art sales, pieces in regional muesums, in other words a bit of a reputation, Bert Seabourne had a great idea. Not that I’m comparing myself to Bert. He had a birthday sale, 80 some odd works each at $80.00. I’m going to do the same this year for my sixty-th birthday and clean out the older smaller works. They will be priced well below market but it’s time to clear them out.

  21. I would look at this topic with a double incentive to get going and become a famous, highly collectible artist asap. And do exactly what needs to be done to achieve this. Get over our “artistic souls who don’t like self promotion” selves and get that show on the road.

    Reason 1: So that after your demise, nobody makes pig fences or bonfires, making your entire life’s work irrelevant in a heartbeat.
    Reason 2: I feel that I am now working not just on my behalf, but on behalf of everyone who has believed in me and bought one of my paintings. The crowd is growing. But it is up to me whether their investment, their leap of faith will pay off in the future.

    So yeah. Go for it. If there’s any time left in the incarnation, do your utmost best to be a highly collectible artist by the time you die.

  22. I had an artist friend pass away 2 years ago. His family kept the paintings they wanted and everyone who came to the funeral was allowed to take a piece of artwork home from a reception room at the church. I treasure the piece I got to bring home. It’s serves as a wonderful reminder of a friend.

    1. The adult children of a good friend died last year did the same thing. The kids kept what they wanted of their mother’s work, then they brought the rest of the unframed watercolors to their mom’s memorial service and encouraged everyone to take what they wanted. It was a lovely tribute and rememberence of someone who touched so many lives.

  23. Family, friend, and customers buy, but I have been in the habit of giving family members a painting at some point…often one that they have admired. When I leave this world, the family can each have at least one more depending what is available. I also give to good friends from time to time as they really appreciate the gift.
    Organizations like the Shriners would love to have donations to use in fundraisers, as would local hospitals, etc.

  24. Such a great post!
    I have a fear that I’ll be found dead someday as an old woman under a pile of paintings!

    I always tell my husband that if I go first to sell my work to raise art scholarship money.

    While reading this I had the thought of putting work that I really love in a hidden place so it can be “discovered” someday! I think that way I’d have a little smile on my face when I see the light.

  25. If you would like to try and sell the works, how about listing them with on-line services such as Saatchiart.com, or FineArtAmerica.com, or have you shown them to Jason?

    If you are not interested in financial gain, give them to family and friends first.

    Or, if you want to donate them, contact a local non-profit art organization in your area to see if they know of a placement program. Below is a link to an organization in the Greater Washington DC area that places donated art in public services and housing locals:
    http://www.artconnection-cr.org/

  26. I took a workshop several years ago, and the instructor mentioned that in her will she stated that all remaining work, after her death, was to be destroyed. While it works for her conscience as to leaving no messes behind, I don’t think it dealt with the what-ifs of her work increasing in value.
    I wonder if there is any way to win with this question!
    That said, I am inclined to follow her lead 🙂

  27. At the art center where my studio is (Cottonwood Center for the Arts in Colorado Springs) we recently had a retrospective show of a deceased artist’s work that was going to be tossed. A community member familiar with our art center found them at a yard sale and after discussion with the sellers (neighbors of the artist I think) took them all and brought them to the art center. The show was a big hit as we were able to construct some of the artist’s history from letters that were included. The paintings were priced in the $200-$300 range and the proceeds went to two community non-profits.

  28. When I moved from the east part of the country to the Seattle area three months ago I had about 300 paintings inventory. I donated 100 paintings to local Salvation Army. Because I have some credit being an artist there, general public knows me, so I suggested to have a silent show to generate money and I will donate 100% for this charity organization. They now is planning a better way to get more money from my paintings. I am glad that it is one way to help myself for the space and make contribution to the society at the same time. Those paintings will still be appreciated and the money they spend will help the needed.

  29. I had a dear friend who passed away leaving her family with a treasure trove of art. She had been an award winning, art teacher in town. After the family took pieces for remembrance, the remaining pieces were donated to her church for a fundraising auction. The auction became a social event and a time of remembrance for our dear friend. I was lucky to get a large piece that hangs over my mantle. I will always cherish it.

  30. I think it is important to document your work prior to dealing with a final solution. Local archives in public libraries as well as college and university collections will tell you their requirements to receive materials. In this time if digitization, it is often as simple as taking good quality digitial images of your work. And providing any supporting documentation such as posters, artist statements. A way of telling the children of our purchasers who we were and the place that the piece they have inherited occupies in our larger body of work. Plus also a way of saying what it is to be an artist in this place and time.

    1. I hope you are the Angela Rowe in Wilmington who I know from life drawing. When you move on, your family will have no problems selling your work, but it is a good idea to have an artist statement to go along with each piece of work.

  31. Jason,…Great topic for discussion. I’m 65 years young and an abstract Artist.

    I average 1 or 2 paintings every couple of weeks.

    This Fall, I’ve started sifting through my un-solds and managing them as follows:

    #1. I paint over canvases which are not my favorites.

    #2. I donate framed collages to a local non-profit charity.

    #3. If a collage no longer represents my style then I bend it in half and head to the recycle bin….
    Lee

  32. This is a great topic and one that will be seen more and more as we all age and the world becomes full of fabulous artists. For me it’s a catalyst to add value to each painting by writing on the back a personal note about the piece, my feelings, my inspiration and my mission in painting it. Then maybe my survivors will be inclined to treat it with value rather than just sell it cheap or dump it somewhere.

  33. Many hospitals and homeless shelters could certainly use some uplifting art to brighten their environments. Too often, these places tend to be sterile, even dreary. Many of them have no budget for art, so offering to donate works to them could make a real difference in the lives of patients and residents.

    1. Hello Lynn I was so interested in this blog … recently I donated 25 12 x 16 or smaller
      pieces to a local mental hospital. They were overjoyed with the pieces and I promised to
      come and talk about how and where I painted then.I have a ton more to get rid of, but the
      homeless shelter here may be a good idea. I think all the great painters had lots of art
      piled up in their studios! Best from Anne

  34. Jo Hopper left her works to the Witney Museum and they destroyed them.
    A gentleman a distance from where I live had a legacy of paintings from his father. He arranged to have a show for them. I was unable to attend and have no idea if he sold any of them or threw them out after the show. At least he gave his father a “last hurrah”.

  35. I think for me the plan would be any art left over after giving to family/friends would be auctioned with any proceeds going to the charities I have supported.

    The people I have known who retired/passed away haven’t really had enough art left over for it to be a problem. Their work has gone to family and friends. I think this might also have something to do with the fact that they have been generous in life either through charity or just people they know so haven’t built up any excess.

    1. Janet, your work is awesome. I’ve watched the video before, and am watching it now. You put me onto brass sharpeners, and I found some right after seeing your video. Thanks!

  36. Past history will detail some skirmishes with the IRS regarding the perceived value of a deceased artist’s work. If my memory is correct one notable case involved Marlborough Gallery , NYC representing the estate of David Lewis, a sculptor. Lewis had had a number of notable sales via the gallery. Upon his death the IRS came in and evaluated all of his pieces at some pretty huge prices. In a short order they presented the widow with a huge tax bill. Marlborough fought the action and won for the defendant.
    If you have any track record or established sales track you would be wise to consult an attorney who is experienced and qualified to render a sound judgement. It may seem expense but think of your surviving family members. In the past some families of noted artists have faced the possibility of destroying works in order to escape tax consequences. Thankfully , some of these laws and cases have been challenged but it is wise to be prepared.
    Don Rankin
    http://www.donrankinfineart.com

  37. We get asked this a lot at our arts center. So far, t he best advice we have come up with was to donate or to put it up on an online art gallery … but those require marketing.

  38. In both cases, I would make the art available for the public to view and purchase. Let everyone that attends take a piece home and the monies raised can go to family or a favorite charity. It’s never too late to sell your art for others to enjoy. I’d rather my art go to someone who truly wants it (otherwise they would not have purchased it), giving it a chance to live on under someone else’s care.

  39. Remember all those charities that asked you to donate a piece every year for their silent auction? Some some are dear-to-our-heart organizations. There are certainly no shortage of worthwhile groups that would be pleased to accept work for fundraising.
    I’ve already asked my kids which ones they wanted and each has spoken for those they love; my extended family will be given an opportunity to claim one as well.
    That done, I’ve made my family aware I want any unsold works donated to my favorite charity for a fundraising auction … need to legally take care of that.
    It is a terrible shame to destroy work. All of it can be repurposed. What about art students on tight budgets? Speak to the nearest community college or high school. I have an ongoing debate with our local school board about budget for art verses sports. It is insanely unbalanced. $640 annually for art supplies for three advanced art courses … when they have an four athletic fields, two gyms, pool, workout room, and a combined fourteen paid football coaches for junior varsity and varsity. Look around … there is need all around you.

  40. This is a great question to pose. As a dealer and curator, I have also been asked this question many times. The first thing I ask the family to do is to check is to see if the artist had an auction record. If the work was in auctions (you can check ASK ART.com) then there is a secondary market for it, and the work could be put up at auction. In addition, the family could arrange a private auction. For example, recently, an artist in our community died and his family donated all of his work to a wonderful art group in San Fernando with whom he exhibited. He was an active member of the group and big supporter of their new art center. The center/art group invited everyone on their list to this special auction as did the family of the artist. They sold most of the work and raised funds for their new location. Everyone was very pleased at the outcome and the work itself found happy new homes!

    1. Margaret,
      It’s nice to see you on this site. I, too have lost many good artist friends and have struggled with this question of legacy and art for many years. I’m getting some good ideas as I too have a very large amount of inventory. I’d like to see more posts on this topic.
      Merrilyn Duzy

      1. Hi, Merrilyn and Margaret — Our EcoArts Collective mounted a memorial exhibition for a fellow artist and curator whose death had been unexpected. It was helpful for all of us who were still in considerable shock when we produced the show six months later and only made possible by the generous support of a local gallerist. Many of us saw large paintings from her New York studio days for the first time as she had swapped to installation and assemblage after moving to LA. Only a few works were actually for sale (set by the family) as the artworks had been left to her daughter who needed to “hang” with them a bit longer. We also had a very tall book case of her art books as she was also an art historian and curator. A second event was more of a “memorial sale” with the proceeds going to the Women’s Caucus for Art for a former president of our chapter and national organization. I happily bought a diptych, then framed one panel and gave the other to a friend, who could not attend. Spend a good deal more on the framing than how the work was priced – but, love seeing it each day. You leave asking why don’t we do more community appreciation of fellow artists with sales, studio visits etc when the person is still alive? My lesson learned is that we may have far more power to provide “meaning opportunities” to one another even when “revenue opps” might still be lacking though the charity comments here point to fresh ideas.

        On a practical level, the Women’s Art Institute at Rutgers had a symposium on this topic in 2009 that some might find of interest. http://waand.rutgers.edu/iwa/etched/site/EiM-video-olin.html

  41. Wow – what a great subject! Though an American, my husband was a somewhat well-known sumi-e artist the last 15 years of his very long professional artist’s career, and I, also an artist, hope to produce income (and as an artist, need same) from his remaining works, and am proceeding to do so via newsletters announcing releases, and Facebook advertising and posts of same. His work is compelling, unusual, and accomplished. I am marketing online and to interested admirers, in the hopes of having others (and their children) enjoy having the work to enrich their lives, and at the same time, helping myself to continue my own work as an artist/widow/survivor. Don’t know if this is a model for another way, especially if the life-long artist was recognized but never achieved fame as our society defines it. I live in an “art-town”, so donation is really not a real option, and at this point didn’t even occur to me. Guess I’ll find out if this will work! His remaining work is now becoming a tab , as WilliamPrestonEstate, on my own website, and my work is quite different from his.

  42. Artists I know have discussed this and it is a problem, none of us want to see a huge body of work end up at the good will.
    I think we should set up a foundation to take the work, then they sell it or exhibit it or auction it off and the money supports the foundation and the art community as a whole, possibly giving out grants to young artists.
    It is a lot of work to set this up and not free to do so…but I think it would be a good solution.

  43. This is a particularly appropriate question for those of us beneficiaries of deceased relatives’ remaining art collection, for whom there is little or no auction sales record. I was introduced to a group by art Appraiser, Betty Krulik, with the Antiques Roadshow, which assists heirs with documenting, showing and creating a reputation for their relatives’ work online. POBA.org
    https://poba.org/online-art-portfolios/
    Sadly, my father, once requested by juror of an Art show he won a top award in, to send a crate of his artwork to the Guggenheim Museum for consideration for the 1954 Exhibition: “Younger American Painters, 1954”, was not chosen. The juror, Andrew C. Ritchie, Director of New York City’s MOMA Painting and Sculpture department,had visited my father’s home to ‘see everything he had made’.
    I haven’t yet worked with POBA myself, but I have documented some of my father’s work here, on Pinterest:
    https://www.pinterest.com/middashmod/m-l-moore/
    His name was M. L. Moore. He was a master of composition. He grew up in CT and lived in the Southwest, Texas and Colorado where he was member of numerous Art Associations.
    Thank you for this question, Jason.

  44. I believe it was DeGrazia who, upon discovering his family’s probable tax burden based on the value of his work, took his paintings to the desert for a huge bonfire.
    Prior to one move, I donated several pieces to an alzheimer’s assisted living center. Prior to another move, I invited friends and acquaintances to select pieces and leave anonymous moving expense donations of any amount in a decorated box with a slot cut on top. Only with maturity have I accepted destroying paintings or cutting them up for collages.
    When I discover other artists’ originals in thrift shops, I sometimes buy them with the supposed intention to re-use the frames. But then I most times complicate my storage problem by keeping and honoring their framed art as is. It is a nightmare of mine to someday see my own paintings orphaned in a thrift shop. Would I buy them back? I guess it means a lot to me that my art is appreciated no matter what is paid for it.

  45. Isn’t this the same thing that happened to Van Gogh? If I recall that story correctly, Vincent and his brother Theo both died within a short time span, leaving a lifetime of art work in storage. Theo’s widow was advised to just throw it all out and forget about it. Thankfully, she didn’t carry out such an insanely disrespectful plan.

  46. A lot of libraries in Britain love having art to show to the public, and if anyone was generous enough to allow them to sell the items to raise money, then the libraries would be more financially stable and able to not only buy more books, but run more classes for both children and adults as well as a lot of social groups. Some people have no access to Art Galleries or anything similar to stimulate their senses, and that is where the libraries fill a need. Our doctor’s surgeries also have several pieces of donated artworks. Much better than looking at blank walls………..

  47. Personally, I think I would donate them to various charities that were personal favourites of the artist. That way the benefits are threefold (the artists family feel good, the charities able to sell works of art and the appreciative person who spends their money on a beautiful object they may not be able to afford under normal circumstances.)

  48. Having recently had health problems I spent a lot of time in waiting room of hospitals and clinics for treatments etc. Some of these had empty walls with nothing to distract patients from their problems. So I arranged to donate paintings to fill the empty space and was able to pick and choose and hang them myself. Believe me it makes such a difference to have something to look at that will take your mind off your problems. Being of a certain age I plan to let family and friends choose their favorites and donate the rest to hospitals and clinics. Art is such a soul lifting thing that it needs to be saved and put where people can enjoy it. I have also donated paintings to centres that feed the poor , but after a few months they disappeared. Maybe I should be flattered.

  49. Gotta give it away if you can’t sell it. Otherwise it may end up in the trash. That was what would happen with my photography, so I got my ass in gear and placed a lot of it with museums and special collection libraries. My family hates my work and it will end up in the nearest dumpster when I kick off. I’m old and health is poor, so the writing is on the wall. You can also archive it on the net via Internet Archive. I’m putting PDF’s of artists’ books I’ve done there.

  50. @ Karen Instructing someone else to destroy your art for you is a very unfair request, especially of someone you love. As artist, like a writer, must continually edit what they create. Delete words or colors that do not communicate what you really want to say. Exchange lines and paragraphs for those that deliver the essence of your message.

    Part of my ongoing creative process includes editing my work. Whether I am writing or painting, I cull the most succinct each day. Yes, this does mean that I paint over and cut up paintings. There is one rule I follow when putting something in the trash ~ I cut it up myself. I NEVER ask my husband or anyone else to destroy it for me. I would never want to be asked to destroy the creative soul of someone I love dearly.

    1. Look up “cull” or “succinct.” Right? Cull means pull out and dispose of. Succinct means most clear and to the point. One would cull the least succinct. In fact, after reading this, I will put that act on my agenda. Thanks!

  51. I make steel sculptures, which are hard to stack. I have them lined up on shelves in my garage/studio. I have sold some, so i know they are liked by people, but they are not like paintings. you need space to put them on. Paintings are easier to give to people or organizations as the hang on a wall out of the way. I expect that when I am gone my son will recycle my artwork as scrap metal.

  52. After reading the book, Artists’ Estates: Reputations in Trust, by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousinea, I was shocked into beginning the process of taking the matter of artwork after death very seriously.
    First I purged work, which I felt needed to be purged (this is a very personal matter)
    I made sure all remaining work was signed and dated (if I was not sure of the date I wrote circa and the year I thought it was created.
    Then I inventoried all he work I had (title, media, size, date, and attached a coded number to each one). I also made a provenance form for each piece, listing the various exhibitions (where and when) it had been shown. This information was put into chronological binders. I also made an inventory of my journals/sketchbooks.
    I tend to produce less work in the summers, so this was a job I took on for two summers. I began with the most current work and moved backwards. When creating new work it immediately goes into the little system I have made. Then I asked my children to identify pieces they would like, and I made a list for each child.
    I hired an estate lawyer that specialized in art estates (I am still paying the bill), and I found that this thing is more than I ever expected. However, because I did the work of creating an inventory, universities were a bit more open to considering taking on the work at my death. I also found that the copyrights can be left to entrepreneurial
    children who have some understanding of how to use it in a way that will retain the integrity of the work. Copyrights can also go into a trust and the proceeds used for family or charity, for years to come. The art works my children listed were put into a document (the document can be revised if needed) that is a part of my will. The tax issues are numerous, and can have serious implications for artists and their families.
    As an artist who has had to help clear the living spaces of fellow artists after death, seen work pulled out of dumpsters, or heard of the storage bills inherited by a family after an artist’s death, I felt I had to do something. I am doing my best to see that my work is an asset family and community.
    How to use Excel to create an art inventory… – AJ Grossman
    How to create an inventory of an Artist’s Estate – Art Business Info. for …
    Creating an inventory numbering system The Joan Mitchell …
    http://www.artists-estates.com/en/conference2016/
    The Artist Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs – Loretta …
    Videos:
    Protecting and Preserving Your Creative Legacy: Preserving Your
    Protecting & Preserving Your Creative Legacy: Planning

    1. These copyright should be registered with the US Copyright Office to have additional value: Among other benefits, a registered art copyright 1) provides the author or its heirs with “presumptive proof” that the artist actually created the work; and 2) the copyright is enforceable against infringers and copycats.

  53. This is a very thought provoking topic. I have destroyed some things which I feel no represents what I do. The gallery that I am in has a bin where we con place unframed paintings which although good works have not sold. Still I have paintings which have not found their homes yet.

  54. My grandfather painted quite a bit during his lifetime and gave away many of his paintings over the years to friends and family. He was my mentor.

    When he died, my grandmother wanted to toss them all but my mother stepped up to take the remaining paintings. Just before she died one of my siblings removed them all before the rest of us could get any. So the problem is what we (I) didn’t get rather than what might have been stacked up in a corner.

    When I was 5, I asked my grandfather to paint a ballerina for me, which he did. It hung in my room long after I left home and my mother decided it needed to be donated to Salvation Army. Thankfully my daughter stepped in and grabbed it while it was still in the house.

    A few months ago, a man contacted me to ask if I knew Carroll Waddell (my grandfather) because they had a few of his pieces and was curious about him. They got one of his paintings in a thrift store.

    I’m leaving specific instructions in my will that my children divide them equally and politely. They will figure it out but they love my stuff so my paintings should still be hanging next generation.

  55. I don’t think selling everything at fire sale prices is a good idea because it will diminish the value of the works previously sold. I think it would be better to donate or give to friends and family.

  56. I knew the wife of a very well known artist who was tremendously prolific. She sold several paintings immediately after his death but was still left with many more. In the end she had a huge sale and sold them for practically pennies. It was very sad, his death was unexpected. I think every artist needs to make some arrangement for their work, this was such a painful thing for her and the adult children to deal with. Every sale saw her in tears and it was so difficult.

  57. Years ago, the family of a 90 year artist asked the gallery I was in to host an exhibit of of this artist’s work – and priced the work to “move”. It was amazing how many people came from the community with e-mail/postcard promotions to the gallery list and an article in the local paper (with a picture of her painting on the side of the road).

    She was still alive and painting at 95 – so the gallery did another exhibit! With lower prices – the art flew off the wall. I bought a piece myself. She passed the next year.

    I’ve had collectors pass – and had attorneys contact me to see what I want done with the paintings they purchased from me. In these cases, I suggest that they locate the local arts council and donate the works for their annual auction. If the work is good, I don’t think many Arts Councils turning down, and even storing a collection, and selling parts of it each year.

  58. I’m for the bonfire exit, being myself a poor artist. Any posthumous sales of work should first benefit family members who must bear with cremation costs. Leftovers could be offered to charitable venues, and the rest consigned to destruction– but not before the work is photographed by a family member.

  59. I’ve just finished updating my will and found these Possible places to donate paintings
    http://omnicharities.org/donations/Donate-Art.php?gclid=CJCTl-_om88CFUdZhgodLgkO8w
    http://www.artistsforcharity.org/get-involved/donate-your-artwork
    http://www.collectibleswithcauses.org/donate-art.html
    http://www.missminimalist.com/2011/04/where-to-donate-your-stuff-101-places-your-clutter-can-do-good/
    The above missminimallist.com may be a good source to donate other stuff as well

    Items such as artist brushes, paints, canvases, easels, frames, and so forth not wanted by a family members could be donated to a local school that has an active art program.

  60. I’m going to exhibit all of my pieces on an old giant metal warehouse wall, have it professionally photographed and videoed with me in front of it, then set it on fire. I will then use it as an AV presentation. Art comes in all forms and I will at least have a new medium/ photo series to show for it.

    1. This is such a personal thing that the artist should make any decision on the matter crystal clear. My husband said he would burn his paintings if he couldn’t sell or donate them to appropriate collectors and institutions. He didn’t want just anybody to have them, including or especially members of his own family. Mean-spirited? I don’t think so. He knew they didn’t understand his work, couldn’t preserve it properly, and would quickly grow tired of it.

      Of course he died before burning his work and now it’s up to me to find appropriate places for his paintings or do the burning myself. So this idea of documenting works before their destruction, either by video or photographing, preserves them visually and helps ease the pain of their loss.

  61. No one has shared the idea to add to these pieces, a story or notes, from you the artist. Imagine going through your old work, and noting your thoughts and ideas about each piece. Maybe it was experimental, or just didn’t turn out the way you imagine, explain where you where in your life when you created it, ect. What a value that would add to each. If you are going to disperse a lifetime of work, let the recipient know the circumstances that led the work to them. That would increase the value of pieces you may think of now as disposable.How much more value to your friends and family to have your notes along with the work.

  62. Gerry Grout
    Since I work in series I have found local hospitals that are willing to hang my current work permanently following an exhibition of the paintings. They never return to my studio leaving me free to begin my next series. I am now producing my seventh series.
    Also I am cleaning out studio supplies I am no longer using by contributing them to my Artists Guild to raise funds. Also my many art books will be donated to the local Art Museum library.

  63. I am so happy you brought up this question. As an artist for the last 30 plus years, even though some of that time included working as an illustrator, and still, as a portrait painter, I’ve also developed quite a body of landscape paintings. Health issues, which hopefully will still allow me a good number of years more, nevertheless make it clear that I may have much remaining unsold work left in the end. I’m seeing some great ideas to consider about how to make good use of that work when the time comes and to plan for that while I’m still alive.

  64. I just read a lot of posts on the subject. I have often thought about this. I would like my paintings to benefit an organization, perhaps animals, homeless people, etc. So I would hope that my paintings could be sold, auctioned, etc. and the money could be donated. I believe we should put wishes like these in our Will. Having an art statement on the back of each painting is an excellent idea, giving the recipient of the art the story behind it.

  65. My thoughts are to set up a foundation or have my son set one up, with specific instructions on how to distribute my artwork upon my demise. Although I have some sales history and local and international exhibitions, there are still many pieces that will be unsold when the ultimate time comes.
    I have also thought about setting up a non-profit foundation or company that would establish set prices for publishing a specific number of pictures or art objects into a book, with a bio and one or more reviews or commentaries. This would mean that the artist or their family would basically endow the publication of a book of the artwork of the artist. An example might be that the book would include several different numbers of artwork, i.e. pricing of the project to the artist family–say $5000 for 50 to 100 pieces—to include a bio, commentary and 100 artworks. Specific pricing to vary on what was needed and the level of organization for such factors as existing inventory, available reviews and bio, etc and how many art objects were to be included in the publication. The money paid to the foundation, would cover the hiring of an art-writer or grad students to write a commentary and possibly a review or two, plus a curator (professional or semi-professional) to coordinate the publishing project; depending on how many useable photos existed, or how much photography needed to be done. The foundation and its underwriters would coordinate the projects, establish standards for the work needed, and hire appropriate curators, graphic designers, photographers and writers for each project. The foundation would also establish the pricing to the artist family
    for each publication. Over time, the foundation would establish quite a library of projects and a reputation for finding and employing writers, curators, etc. Over time, the foundation could also become a depository of select artworks that could be sold or otherwise marketed for the benefit of the foundation, estates of specific artists–with several branches in various geographic locations. Basic funding for the projects would come from specific artists and their families (for the book organization, production and publication); community funding on a larger scale could also come from other foundations and grants once the initial proof of concept had been established. One major limiting factor, for me personally, is that I want to continue to be an artist, not the organizer of the foundation. But I would be pleased to help organize the overall foundation project. Any takers?

  66. Whether donated or sold, I m thinking about attaching or adding a brief statement to my paintings about why it was painted. If someone you would never know likes it they get a brief glimpse of you, the painter, the person.

  67. When my mother died, she left behind a beautiful collection of handbuilt pottery she had made. As part of her life celebration we put together a display of her works. Later we gave them away to various family members.

    It made me think about my own art and what I want to do with it. I like the idea of leaving statements about the art. Also I like the idea of culling through it to see what to keep and what to destroy.

    As for estate taxes, consult with an estate lawyer. Some estates are too small to have to pay them.

  68. In a related thought, this makes me want to slow down, really slow down and take my time in making art instead of trying to be terribly prolific.

  69. I have a young friend (40) who is in our will to take my art as well as our art collection. I totally trust her to keep what she wants and make sure her friends who maybe could not afford art will get some. My husbands art will be numbered, numbers in the hat and friends and family draw a number and get that piece. They are welcome to trade. Our executor knows to do this. We have no children and our $$ if any is left goes to a non-profit for the environment.

  70. When my sister in law, an artist passed away, my brother donated her art to the Winona Food Coop. They displayed the art on their walls and what ever money they were able to get for the art, they were able to keep and use to help improve the food coop. The local paper did a full page story about my sister in law Martha Greenwald’s art and her contriubutions to her city. It was a lovely tribute to her and it gave more meaning to many of her art pieces and her overall contributions to the city as an enviornmentalist and acitivist for many good causes.

  71. I’m a prolific daily painter. I cull at the end of each year. I make adjustments to some. Reframe others. Hold a silent auction at my holiday shows. Completely paint over others. Anything unsold after 3 years intense marketing has to go by one of these methods.

    To prevent devaluing your work or annoying your outlets, I recommend discounting or donating art outside your local area.

    I like the idea of displaying at the celebration of life for friends and family to take anything they would enjoy. In my will I ask for saleable works to be donated to the Cancer clinic to be exchanged for donations. Less valuable art is to go to a food bank to be given to the needy with their food packages. Supplies will go to the gallery where I volunteer to use in their programs.

  72. Good reply Susan Gainen! I don’t have children and no siblings. Donating to your favorite charities and nursing home possibilities sounds good to me. Re-using outdated or non-sold items could also work.

  73. Some organizations don’t have the staff or volunteers to handle art donations. This happened to a friend of mine, recently passed. She tried to work with a health organization for over 2 years to get her life’s work sold as a charitable donation and they kept waiting until “someday” when there might be someone who could focus on making an auction happen. She even looked for the venue and tried to find volunteers to no avail. Now her kids are trying to figure out what to do with these hundreds of delightful pieces other than trashing them. It is a problem. Thank you all for these wonderful suggestions, I am going to take a cold, hard look at those extra pieces I am not happy with, and up my selling strategies on those I like.

  74. Some good ideas, but considering what I’ve read from Jason in the past, offering work at a discount didn’t seem like a good idea. And one person commented that the family of an artist she knew who had died offered pieces of artwork for people to take home at the reception, and noted how good it made them feel when they saw it. All I can say is: Imagine how the ARTIST would have felt if they had bought the piece directly from them.

  75. When my older friend needed to sell the inventory of his late wife, he and his younger family members did the Affordable Art Show in Denver for a few years. It brought in some well needed money (and most people paid cash).

  76. I, in my sixties, feel like that old lady in her 90´s. I hate business and the works I sold were sold because somebody “discovered” my work or a friend arranged a show …
    But in 2013 I moved from my home country (Argentina) to Spain. We sold our home and moved to Europe with very few things. I had lots of works and gave some of them to friends but mostly I packed them all in a large bulk and left it next to the trash. It was almost like leaving my children discarded there, cried while packing them and tried to forget them… and begin again.

  77. Charity sounds like such a good option for whatever art that your family and friends don’t want, but be sure to think it through from the charity’s point of view. First, choose specific charities now. Contact them and find out if they are capable of handling some or all of the art that might remain after your passing. Discuss whether you are hoping that they will sell, display or give the art to their clients. Do not expect them to pay for so much as a wall hanger, much less storage of art prior to a sales event, or unsold art afterward. Unless this is what they specialize in, do not expect them to know how to price and market your art to the right people. While I am on the topic of thinking things through from someone else’s point of view, please chat now with whoever you have chosen as executor of your will and anyone to whom you plan on leaving your inventory or copyrights. Answer their questions, get their ideas and clarify your intentions now, while you can, even if you are healthy and 20 years old.

  78. Every person who responded to this article had some great ideas. I have started early with distribution of the overstock. I am actually in five galleries here on the Big Island of Hawaii, and have had many sales, but not enough to keep up with my creative output. So I donate to every fundraising auction and give away art to very close friends and family as gifts. I have also recycled large paper pieces into smaller items such as bookmarks or cards. Great article again, thanks Jason!

  79. I found this to be a very interesting article. I am not an artist but my mother was and she passed away 8 years ago after a long battle with cancer, leaving many pieces of art. She was not a famous artist but had many admirers of her art. I worked on a project selling and donating her art over a period of 7 years, working on it when I had time, which was not as often as I would have liked. I tried many different avenues and it was difficult but I feel that I was able to get the art into the hands of people that appreciated it. After completing the project, I wrote a blog about it. Here is the link: http://apersonalprojectcompleted.blogspot.com/

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