On Borrowed Time

On Borrowed Time
by Daniel Grant

Courtesy of Handmade Business

Without much fear of contradiction, one can say that artists want to exhibit their work and sell their work, too. Getting an exhibition opportunity and making a sale, however, is rarely a given, leading artists to try alternatives. Some artists have found one option is the loaning of their work. They are discovering that a growing number of municipalities around the country, as well as universities and museums, are interested in receiving short- and long-term loans of artwork.

Attracting the General Public
"It's very difficult to sell sculpture through galleries," observes Reven Swanson, an artist from Denver, Colorado, who creates stationary and kinetic works. "Most people don't have time to go to art galleries." More often, they will have time and opportunity to travel downtown, and it is in these public locations that she places her large-scale pieces as part of a loan agreement with the arts commission or public-arts commission in the city.

Among the cities in Colorado are Broomfield, Boulder, Grand Junction, Greeley, Lakewood, Littleton, Longmont, and Pueblo. She also has loaned her work to city arts agencies in Iowa and South Dakota. At each site, the city creates a plaque identifying the artist and the title of the work, sometimes including information about the artist. On occasion, passers-by become more than a little intrigued, turning into buyers. "I've sold more than half of my loaned work, and I've received quite a few commissions from people in the cities where my work has been on display."

Art loan programs are a way for cities and other institutions to "enhance public spaces without having to spend a lot of money," states Anna Blyth, program planner for the City of Santa Fe (New Mexico) Arts Commission. Her agency solicits offers from artists (most of whom are within driving distance) for renewable yearlong loans for sites at municipal parks, libraries, and community centers. "Borrowing allows us to fill in the spaces where there is no art."

A Mutual, Beneficial Arrangement
Loan programs offer a variety of benefits for artists. For Mark di Suvero, who regularly creates monumental works, "a gallery show of 40- and 50-foot works doesn't happen too often, because of the height limitations in most galleries," explains his studio director, Ivana Mestrovic. Lending his work to schools and other institutions "is really how his work is exhibited."

Sculptor Elyn Zimmerman also notes, "I try to put my work somewhere on loan, at colleges, museums, or sculpture parks." She contacts these institutions herself, finding that many of them are interested in short- and long-term loans. Her reason for doing this is that "maybe two or three works sell from a show, and the rest take more time to sell. Meanwhile, I've got all these big sculptures to store while I'm making others. If I can put my work on display, where people can see it, it's better than my paying to store it. They have guards and insurance, so I don't have to pay for that, either. An added benefit is that I can bring people out there to look at it, and that may result in a sale."

The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation periodically loans sculptural works in the "Brushstrokes" series by the late artist to museums and other cultural centers "as part of its mission, which is to facilitate public access to the work of Roy Lichtenstein," shares Jack Cowart, the foundation's executive director. Some of these loans, in fact, do turn into purchases by the borrowing institutions, including one by the Indianapolis Museum of Art that had begun as a five-year loan.

Open Arms and Monetary Awards
In Greeley, Colorado, where Reven Swanson has loaned her work, a panel selected by the public art coordinator, Kim Snyder, decides among the submissions of applications and images to pick a dozen works every year. Among the criteria for selection, Snyder reveals, are the size and strength of the artwork, whether or not it would be "a good fit for Greeley" and the object's susceptibility to damage or vandalism. Each selected artist receives a $700 stipend to cover (or assist with) the costs of moving and installing the artwork (additional manpower is provided by the city's Parks Department) and the public art commission publishes a brochure that provides information on each piece and its creator. The commission annually solicits area residents to vote for their favorite artwork, and the artist of the biggest vote-getter receives an additional $500 People's Choice Award. Every year, the city also purchases one of the loaned artworks for its permanent collection, and Swanson has been the recipient of both a People's Choice Award and a purchase.

Every art loan program requires that the artist keep his or her work in place for the entire contract period, regardless of whether or not someone purchases the work. Sales do take place from time to time, and these occasions are handled in different ways. If a work included in the corporate art loan program of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, is bought by a museum corporate member, the artist receives the full purchase price. On the other hand, the Marble Falls Community Art Program in Texas takes a 25% commission on any sales that result from the yearlong exhibition in the city's downtown.

The Downside of Open Venues
Lago Vista, Texas, sculptor Michael Epps loaned one of his works to a nearby city ("I don't want to mention the city by name, because I still work with people there") and the piece was sited in a parking lot across from a saloon. Late one December night, several years ago, a patron of the saloon backed into his sculpture, driving over it and then taking some piece of it away. Neither the saloon patron nor the missing piece was ever found, and the sculpture was a total loss. The city's insurance policy for the artwork had a $2,000 deductible, which was subtracted from the settlement that the artist received, in addition to a 30% commission that the city took for the sale of the sculpture.

The contract with the City of Bee Cave, Texas, informs artists taking part in its art loan program that the insurance policy "is for the protection of the City against liability created by placement of the Sculpture on City Property" and does not cover damage or theft, which remains the responsibility of the artists. Normal wear-and-tear, damage from severe weather occurrences, and vandalism do take place, and The City of Palo Alto (California) states in a written contract with artists participating in its art loan program: "The Artist, at his or her sole cost and expense, will maintain and repair the Sculpture and the Base during the term of this Agreement."

Artist Reven Swanson

Above: Reven Swanson has had great success with her work displayed on loan to public settings. Much of her work is large and impressive. It is well suited for outside, open venues.

Public Exposure Equals Risk
Jack Cowart stresses that "we're very careful" where works by Lichtenstein are placed by the borrowing institution. "When asked by the occasional university, we trust it won't be placed on fraternity row. We would prefer it in front of the university museum, a bit set back and with security." One work that suffered damage was placed in a park in Switzerland where local teens regularly played games of soccer and Frisbee. "I guess the locals got annoyed by the presence of the work. They parked their bikes up against it. It was tagged once or twice. We had no idea."

Since Lichtenstein's sculptures aren't placed on pedestals, but rather are set directly into the ground ("Roy liked the idea of his work coming up from the ground, as though it were a tree"), the foundation stipulates to borrowing institutions that groundskeepers not drive their lawnmowers and trimmers right up to the works.

Public Acclaim and Personal Satisfaction
The opportunity to have one's work seen by far more people than those who visit art galleries is an irresistible temptation for artists. Lending pieces to cities, universities, and other institutions may result in commissions and other opportunities to exhibit elsewhere. There are no honoraria for artists at gallery shows, and these displays rarely last more than a month, although they do draw the more select group of people who are more prone to buy artwork.

Reven Swanson believes that more public awareness and excitement attend the installation of her work in public settings than when there is a gallery exhibit. "In smaller towns, you get treated like royalty," Swanson states. "The mayor comes out to greet you. You get written up in the newspaper; the local television station interviews you." In addition, there is a more immediate reaction--one way or another--to one's work. "Works that don't get a positive response, I'll later cut up and do something else."