Orlando Museum of Art receives a gift with strings and tries to cut them

Any day a seven-figure gift is given to a museum is a great day. But for the Orlando Museum of Art, which recently received a $1.8 million bequest from the estate of Margaret Young, that gift couldn’t have come at a better time.

Last December, the museum’s executive director, Katherine Matson, warned trustees and influential donors of a “severe financial crisis” with a projected deficit of nearly $1 million in the museum’s $4 million budget by the end of June 2024.

The losses stemmed from what Winifred Sharp, a former museum trustee, called “the Basquiat fiasco”: a 2022 exhibition of paintings said to have been created by art-world giant Jean-Michel Basquiat, but which were later seized by the FBI. Seized as fake. , A Los Angeles auctioneer later admitted to the FBI that he and an associate had created some of the paintings in just five minutes.

The $1.8 million bequest could go a long way in easing the museum’s financial problems. But Ms. Young, herself an artist, said her bequest could only be used to purchase artworks for the museum’s permanent collection, not for operating expenses such as staff salaries or the museum’s mounting legal bills.

So now, as nonprofits sometimes do, the museum has asked the court to modify Ms. Young’s restrictions so the money can be spent more widely.

On April 24, the museum, with a letter of support from Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, petitioned the Orange County Circuit Court to modify the restrictions. No date for hearing has been set.

Young died in 2005, and her will contained the remaining funds she left in a trust for her daughter Kit Knotts, who died the previous year. The Trust directs that upon Ms. Knotts’s death, the remainder should go to the Museum’s “Permanent Collection Fund and be added to their permanent collection.”

In its application filed with the court, the museum asked for the $1.8 million to be used “for the general purposes of the OMA and in service of its existing permanent collection,” including “curatorial staff, vault maintenance/repairs, dedicated to the permanent collection. Security, etc.”

The museum said in the filing that it cannot use the bequest solely to purchase artwork because it does not have a ‘permanent collection fund,’ which “makes it impossible for OMA to achieve the donor’s intent.”

The museum says its financial condition is improving and the amendment request is not an attempt to address its financial shortfall. But some critics say the amendment, if approved, would have that effect, as it appears to allow bequest funds to be diverted to what are typically viewed as operating expenses.

The Friends of American Art, an OMA “collecting board” whose members donate money to purchase art for the permanent collection, has recently expressed concerns Their own contributions could be used to address the museum’s cash crunch.

Ms. Matson and the museum’s board chair, Mark Elliot, responded in a letter, which reassured the Friends group that their donation “is restricted and can only be used to purchase art.”

“So which one is it?” Fiorella Escalone, the donor who led the public, asked “Oma Save” Campaign that has criticized the museum’s transparency. “They told us that an account is restricted to purchasing artwork for the permanent collection, and they told a judge that we don’t have such an account,” said Katherine Matson.

Critics have also questioned whether it would be so difficult to establish another fund designed to add artworks to the permanent collection, even if there was no existing fund with that exact name.

But opening a new account was not an option for the Young Will, museum attorney Ginette Childs said in response to questions. He said creating such an account would have been redundant because the museum already had a Friends group and another collection group, the Acquisition Trust. Furthermore, he said, such a move would have required additional legal expense (“far greater than modifying the ban”) and the creation of entirely new museum rules about purchasing artwork.

The New York Times contacted several lawyers focused on the art world, who said they did not think the process of setting up a new fund to house the donated acquisitions money would be so complicated or expensive.

The attorneys said the only hurdle the museum has left to clear is convincing the court they are following Florida statute overseeing restricted charitable gifts. It states that “any amendment should be made in accordance with the probable intention of the donor” and only if the restriction would be “unlawful, impractical, impossible to achieve or useless”.

In Pennsylvania, where the laws overseeing charitable assets are similar, the Barnes Foundation convinced a judge in 2004 that the museum’s near-bankrupt financial condition made it necessary to lift its founder’s restrictions, which had declared it Will remain in his original home in suburban Marion. It is now in downtown Philadelphia.

Similarly, several lawyers said that the Orlando Museum’s more compelling argument for the amendment would have been its financial distress, rather than the trouble of creating a new “permanent collection fund”.

“Are they being rude to the court?” Miami partner Clarissa Rodriguez said harper mayer Firm, which specializes in art law. “Because they have a fund to acquire permanent collection art, but it’s not called a ‘permanent collection fund.’

Ms Rodriguez said the proposal to use bequests “in service” of an existing permanent collection, with extended “purposes that end in ‘et cetera'”, could raise concerns of violating the donor’s intent. “The intent for the museum’s permanent collection and acquisitions budget is exactly what the restrictions call for,” he said. “Not for other uses, not for a new roof, not for paying legal fees, not for staff salaries, these are all things that could have been stated.”

Some of the expenses bequeathed by the museum – “security” and “curatorial staff” – are regular operating expenses.

But Ms Childs denied that the expanded list of acceptable uses of the money was designed to address a financial shortfall. The museum, he said, “is trying to honor the donor’s intent by using the funds in support of the permanent collection of art owned by the museum.”

As a result, he said, the museum does not anticipate that donors will be upset by its request for revisions.

“We hope that current and future donors to the museum will appreciate OMA’s vision,” he said. “It is public, we sought consent from the Florida Attorney General before filing the motion, and now we are seeking court approval.”

But one unhappy potential donor is Margaret Young’s surviving daughter, 77-year-old Dee Miller. There is also a trust established by her mother which, upon Ms. Miller’s death, will donate the remainder of her estate to the museum for its “permanent collection fund.” ,

He said he was not aware that his mother had listed the museum as the sole beneficiary when she created trusts for her two daughters. But he was not surprised by this.

“My mother was an artist herself,” Miller said. “She lived just a few blocks from the museum, and she started taking art classes there when it was called the Loch Haven Art Center,” as did the museum. Originally namedin the 1960s. “He loved that place.”

He said he was disappointed that court action could change his mother’s wishes. “I think the museum should do with the money what my mother would have wanted,” he said. “She wanted it to be used for a specific purpose. I would like to see his wishes followed.”

And what about the remainder in her own trust? Currently its value is also around 1.8 million dollars. Would she have a problem if the museum again challenged her mother’s request that it be used to purchase art?

“Okay,” thought Miller, laughing, “I won’t be around to object.” She paused and then became serious: “Should I call a lawyer?

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