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A Glorious Year for Museums . . . : Art: Thanks to a change in federal income tax laws, more collectors are donating works to institutions nationwide.

December 25, 1991|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

It's been Christmas all year at American art museums. While the recession has nipped away at acquisitions budgets--in some cases, gobbling them up entirely and taking a big bite out of operating funds--museums have been blessed with a feast of donated artworks.

Comparing the estimated value of art gifts received so far this year with 1990's gifts, museum directors report that percentages are way up: 400% at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 500% at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, 1,000% at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, 6,000% at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 27, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 5 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled names-- The last name of art collectors Hans and Varya Cohn was misspelled in an article on 1991 gifts to art museums in Wednesday's Calendar.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 28, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 3 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Incomplete name-- The name of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla was incomplete in an article about 1990 gifts to art museums in Wednesday's Calendar.

"It just shows what tax incentives can do," said David Steadman, director of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Indeed, the bonanza is largely due to a one-year provision--recently extended for six months--allowing donors to deduct the full market value of gifts from their federal income tax. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 wiped out deductions of appreciated value for most high-income donors by requiring them to count appreciated value of gifts in calculating the alternative minimum tax. The change effectively reduced gifts of artworks by at least 50% at most museums.

This year's window of opportunity is limited to objects that are directly related to qualified institutions' activities. Donors may deduct the appreciated value of paintings given to art museums, for example, but they may only deduct the purchase price of objects meant for resale, or donated securities.

President Bush on Dec. 11 signed into law a six-month extension of the provision, allowing Congress to consider a permanent change as part of a new tax package. During hearings, scheduled for Jan. 28 and 29, representatives of nonprofit institutions hope to persuade Congress to not only open the window permanently but also to reinstate full market-value deductions for gifts of all kinds of appreciated property.

For now, however, museum directors are thrilled with the temporary opportunity to build their collections.

"I haven't been able to do this for a long time," said Earl A. Powell, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, flipping through a thick sheaf of papers listing 1,387 gifts accepted so far this year by the board of trustees. The museum's final board meeting is expected to place a stamp of approval on dozens of other gifts, bringing the total value to about $30 million--up from about $7.5 million last year.

Long before the final rush of paperwork to process 1991 gifts, the museum had received "Triptych of the Madonna and Child With Saints," a 15th-Century Italian painting by Neri di Bicci, as a gift of board member Hans Kohn and his wife, Varya. An anonymous donor presented LACMA with a major painting by Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still; R. Stanton Avery donated "A Philosopher," a portrait by 17th-Century Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera, and actor Steve Martin donated Neil Jenney's "Acid Story," a contemporary painting which has been on loan to the museum.

Some donors who promised artworks last year in honor of the museum's 25th anniversary turned their promises into real gifts this year, Powell said. But other donations were quite unexpected, and they rolled in all year: 114 in May, 358 in July, 299 in October. While a gift of 350 netsuke from Raymond and Frances Bushell inflated the total number of donated items, this year's list includes many more high-priced pieces than last year.

Other California museums have equally good news to share. Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art issued a press release last month celebrating a bumper crop of gifts, including works by John Altoon, John Baldessari, Karl Benjamin, Robert Longo, Colleen Sterritt and Terry Winters. Last week, the museum announced an anonymous gift of Andy Warhol's "Telephone" painting and expanded its list to include a stunning array of gifts from board members.

Bob and Laura Lee Woods donated "The Matinee Idol," a 1962 painting by Robert Irwin. In addition, the couple made partial gifts of works by Malcolm Morley, Richard Artschwager, Josef Albers, Ross Bleckner, John McLaughlin, Morris Louis, Billy Al Bengston and Kenneth Price. Longtime museum supporters who requested anonymity presented MOCA with partial gifts of Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park No. 131," Kenneth Noland's "Untitled (Target)" and Robert Therrien's "Untitled (Gold Keystone) No. 74." (Partial gifts are generally donated over a period of several years, with the museum receiving additional percentages of the artwork until it has full ownership.)

One of MOCA's most prized new possessions is Frederick and Joan Nicholas' gift of Ad Reinhardt's 1947 black and white abstraction, "Number 16," which is on display in the artist's retrospective. The Reinhardt is the first work by the highly esteemed artist in MOCA's collection, as is a 6-foot cigar sculpture by Robert Gober, purchased by the museum's collectors' committee, MOCA Director Richard Koshalek said.

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