What To Do With the Contents of Your Art Studio Before You Kick the Bucket

“What should be done with my artwork before and after I kick the bucket?” Here are a few considerations on how to prepare your art studio for the inevitable.

by Mary Longe

Art studio advice for artists
A peek inside Lori Putnam’s art studio, which is also her home (read more about Lori’s studio space at FineArtConnoisseur.com)

At a recent exhibit opening, my friend was tickled by teasing between one of his collectors and their adult daughter about when she would get his painting. Turning to me he said, “There’s one that won’t end up at Goodwill.” This is evidence for a T-shirt of mine that says There’s a Little Truth in All Humor. We artists who find our artworks primarily in group shows are unlikely to have our works archived by a university for future study or a museum for posterity. There are more options for the represented artists, like my friend, who have collectors, but that future must be planned. The question looms: What should be done with my artwork before and after I kick the bucket? Here are a few considerations.

Inventory Your Holdings – Art, Furniture, and Equipment

Artworks: First, get a handle on your holdings. Use a simple Excel sheet or an app like Artwork Archive to inventory your work. Take photos front and back, and list the title, description, price, size, date made, and whether it is framed. Make sure your name is legible on the front or back of the item, so there is no question of the artist in subsequent hands, especially if you are “collected.” Establish a list of locations for all unsold pieces of art, whether in your studio, hanging on a gallery wall, or a digital art gallery. Make notes and collect evidence that your pieces are gaining value. Basically, give your heirs the information and the lexicon they need to write an advertisement to promote or sell your holdings once you’ve passed to the great art studio in the sky. In the meantime, this list can be used for insurance purposes.

Equipment and Supplies: Inventory your other studio assets, including unused frames, paints, palettes, easels, and other art studio furniture. A non-artist handling your estate is unlikely to understand the use, importance, or value of a taboret, tube roller, portrait light, weighted easel, still life props, clamps, or background fabrics. If you know where or to whom you want an item bequeathed, make a note. Another artist perhaps or an art school are good thoughts, but make sure they have expressed interest in an item, and that they understand any tax implications of a gift.

Besides your catalog of available artworks, make sure your estate materials list and describe your obligations with live and online galleries, product sponsorships, licensing agreements, and any contracts for teaching, or completing intellectual content. Related passwords for digital elements, websites, and NFT should be easily available too.

Options for Dispersal of Art

For Established Artists: There are more options for the dispersal of artworks for the estates of established artists – those discovered by gallerists, curators, and critics. Galleries currently or previously carrying work should be the first contact to explore dispersal options. Existing relationships with universities and museums may offer opportunities to archive work for scholarship. Galleries and institutions, however, will charge artists and their subsequent estates for storing and handling their works, so make sure you understand the additional resources needed for the future, such as transportation, insurance, conservation, and technology. The book* Creative Legacies, Artist Estates and Foundations by Kathy Battista and Bryan Faller might be helpful.

If your success in sales or gallery representation is documented, consider contacting regional auction houses in areas where your works have been sold. Seek a representative specializing in your work or medium. Once they research sales history and prices, they will decide whether your work is a good fit for a live or online auction. Together you will determine a minimum price and a range. Auctions typically yield the seller about 80% of the selling bid. The auction house will get 20%, plus an added 20% buyer’s premium, for a total of 40% of the sales price. If one auction house doesn’t see the fit, try another. For estates with a complex situation, consider obtaining the services of an art advisor. You can figure a $150-$200/hr fee. For the best success of sales, promote the auction to your collectors and through your social media channels. Remind your heirs to keep your social media channels open until dispersal is decided.

For the Emerging Artist: Are you going to get discovered after your death? Really? Probably not. So, what do you do with stacks of artwork? It is time to ask yourself some questions. What is important to you now? Getting recognition for your work? Recouping some of the millions you have spent on ultramarine and Kolinsky brushes? Not saddling your heirs with the piles? Here are some things you can do in light of your responses.

Making Gifts of Your Art

First, if you need it, ask for help. Be willing to pay someone ($15-$30/hr) to help with online tasks or an art advisor ($150-$200/hr) to develop a plan to approach institutions. Seek advice from a tax accountant if you intend to bequeath your art to individuals. Saddling heirs with a tax burden is likely not your intent, but can happen when the value of the art in tandem with other assets exceeds inheritance amounts. To avoid taxable events, consider including your art in a trust, or treating the art as an asset in annual gifts to heirs before your death. If your inventory of unsold art and equipment that you want to bequeath exceeds gift tax rates, consult a tax accountant to discuss how to mitigate an unintended tax burden for your heirs.

Sheila Kaczynski, a CPA from Kaczynski & Associates, Ltd. in Oakbrook Terrace, IL, explains, “The 2024 gift tax limit is $18,000. For married couples, the limit is $18,000 each, for a total of $36,000. If you give more than this sum, you must file a federal gift tax return for 2024. The IRS tends to increase the gift tax limit every year or so, so you would want to check the current limits in the year you are considering the gift. Also, when you die, your heirs receive a step-up on the basis of the assets to their fair market value on your date of death. This is beneficial to your heirs because it limits their taxable gain if they decide to later sell any of the assets you bequeath. Whether or not you decide to give your art to loved ones, if you have several beneficiaries, consider creating a picture book of art pieces with a print-on-demand service. It offers a way for your creativity to be shared.

Selling Your Inventory

Don’t wait for a gallery to discover you or group shows to sell a couple of pieces here and there. First, let your collectors know you are closing your art studio. Consider approaching or directly renting a nonrepresentational gallery for a solo show. Or, take matters into your own hands and rent a well-trafficked vacant space for a special exhibit. After the passing of a local artist, an empty storefront was rented for a month to assist his family. What’s to say this can’t be done while you are alive? If you have a favorite charity, approach it to offer to sell your work on their behalf – determining tax implications first, of course. Enlist help if needed to offer art on eBay, Etsy, Artsy, or other art websites. Place the most reasonable price on pieces without harming your standing with collectors, and write a sense of urgency into the sales narrative.

As for your equipment, it could be shown and sold with an exhibit. Google “art supply donations” and “artwork donations.” In many geographies, there are educational institutions and nonprofits like the WasteShed in Chicago or SCRAP in San Francisco accepting both. Craft and art supply swaps often conducted by public libraries or recreation departments offer another option to dispose of materials.

Re-using and recycling artwork are options too, for yourself or to make available to others. Exercise some caution, however. Sanding artwork to remove texture can release toxins from the pigments. Gessoing artworks to offer a renewed clean surface is helpful, but note on the back of the substrate what the original medium, to ensure the next work has longevity. I have cut up watercolor paintings for collages and dioramas. A passage from one offers new life for a new work.

A related thought. While cataloging your own art, this is an opportunity to inventory your owned art, jewelry, earthenware, furniture, and the other treasures in your curios and closets. Track info such as the price and date purchased or acquired, Keep your sales receipts and info about the item and the artisan somewhere safe, such as a fireproof file or lockbox. Continue to look for and tuck away evidence on the value of items. You might find a similar turquoise brooch on eBay or Poshmark that you picked up in your travels in the 70s for $50 selling for $1200. Maybe you have a metal truck from your toy chest offered on eBay for $300. You might sell enough to tick off another painting trip on your bucket list. Enjoy the memories that surface while cataloging the items and help your heirs make good decisions in settling your estate.

Finally, let the rest of the art go. Don’t donate it to thrift stores. It is better to destroy it, especially if you have collectors depending on the maintained value of the work they purchased. Enjoy your life. Keep creating on location and in your art studio. You might find yourself doing some of the most creative work ever.

About the Author: Mary Longe holds a certificate in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, and is the former executive director of the Plein Air Painters Chicago. She focuses her work with artists and art collectors on navigating the art marketplace. Longe is an artist working in collage, oil, and painting plein air. In addition to visual arts, Longe is a writer and has several published books and articles.

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  1. thank you for this article! i read about an oil painter who passed away leaving his entire 600 paintings to his only relative, his niece. she knew he painted very well but not how prolifically. he never sold or showed his work. so, she decided, after choosing a few for herself, to give away the 500+ paintings by bringing a few with her every time she left her house and would hand them to people at bus stops or at the store or in a park. she said the people were happy to accept and she was very happy to give the work since it was very nice.

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