What Is an Art Endowment?

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  • Written By: Terry Masters
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 05 December 2019
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An art endowment can be a number of things in the realm of nonprofit fund raising. In some contexts, an art endowment is a gift of art that has certain donor-specified restrictions placed on it. These restrictions can include a prohibition against selling the art or a requirement that proceeds from any art sold be used to purchase additional artwork. In other contexts, an art endowment can be a gift of money that has a restriction placed on it by the donor that requires the money to be invested and the interest used to purchase artwork. Sometimes, a cultural endowment is mislabeled as an art endowment simply because a donor's gift promotes exposure, education and training involving the arts.

Endowments are the lifeblood of institutional nonprofits, such as museums and universities. This type of donation is made to sustain a critical part of the institution. It is typically a substantial gift and is designed to prevent changes in the institution's administration from affecting the intent of the gift to remain as a legacy of the donor. Most endowment gifts come with a written contractual agreement that specifies how the endowment can be used. Once an institution accepts a gift and signs the agreement, it is legally obligated to comply with the gift terms forever, or else risk having the gift rescinded.


Cultural institutions, such as museums and galleries, are often gifted with a certain type of endowment. Ordinarily, an art endowment is a gift of artwork to a museum, made under donor-specified conditions. For example, some wealthy individuals collect artwork. Upon death or simply to allow the public to appreciate the collection, the individual can donate the art to a museum. Instead of simply relinquishing the artwork with the hope that it will be used as the donor intends, the individual can establish an art endowment.

The restrictions placed on the use of the artwork can ensure that the museum never does anything to circumvent the original intention of the donation, such as selling the works to another private investor to raise operating money. Many museums have art endowments that form the basis of their major collections. Donor restrictions that can be placed on actual gifts of artwork can be anything that the donor envisions, including restrictions against sale, against using the proceeds from any sale for anything other than to purchase more artwork or against leaving the artwork on display more than a handful of months a year.

In some instances, an art endowment can take the form of a monetary gift. This gift is given to a museum or other art institution to provide a stream of income that can support the institution's operations. Ordinarily, the principal of the gift is invested, and the institution uses the interest to support operations. Museums sometimes receive this type of cash art endowment to be used to make art purchases.


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Post 3

@Iluviaporos - The other thing to consider is that museums and galleries only have limited space as well. If they had access to every single significant artwork ever made, there would be no way they could display them all.

As it is, I'm sure there are plenty of endowments that hardly see the light of day and live in museum basements.

Post 2

@umbra21 - It could never be made into a law though. You'd either have a great deal of difficulty classifying paintings by their worth, which could lead to sales dropping, hurting artists, or you would give museums too much power to decide which pieces they want.

Most art lovers are fairly happy for their collections to go on show as an endowment. There's very little reason for them to squirrel them away so no one can see them. If they want prestige, they will gain more from showing off with generosity. If they want top care and security for their paintings, the museums and galleries will have more experts than they can assemble.

Post 1

I almost wish that it was basically the law for rich people to give their paintings to museums and galleries as endowments after they pass away. It always just seemed like such a tragedy for famous and beautiful works of art to be hidden away where only a select few can see them. Not to mention that you are at the mercy of the collector's ability to care for the art. It might not be an issue for the first generation, who bought the artwork and knows its worth, but what happens when their grandchildren get hold of it and throw it into the attic?

If I ever had any kind of art worth sharing, I would definitely do this.

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