What to do with artist's work after death can be vexing
Share with others:
Since Oakland artist Thomas "Glen" Whittaker died last month, his longtime companion, Marcy Pitts, has faced the daunting task of deciding what to do with about 35 paintings and other works he left behind.
More specifically, she has wrestled with how to catalog, value, transport, store and market the works, some of which are several feet wide.
At the forefront of Ms. Pitts' mind is a desire to earn Mr. Whittaker, who was 62, recognition for his work. "He couldn't do it in his own lifetime," said Ms. Pitts, a rehabilitation counselor.
Passionate painters and sculptors may make art all of their lives, regardless of how much they sell. When they die, loved ones often find themselves in Ms. Pitts' shoes. Some artists leave hundreds of works.
"It's a really sticky problem," said painter Philip Pearlstein, a Hill District native and New York resident who in the late 1990s helped to develop an estate planning guide for visual artists.
In the guide, Harriet Shorr, another New York painter, summed up the issue this way: "Dead artists leave two bodies -- their own and a body of work."
The amount of art that artists leave behind is considerable. As of 2012, the nation had 227,000 art directors, fine artists and animators, according to data provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Sometimes artists leave instructions on what to do with their work. Many times they don't.
Mr. Whittaker, who died unexpectedly of a stomach ailment, left no guidance. Without a background in art, Ms. Pitts has a difficult time describing his work, let alone putting a value on it. One dealer told Ms. Pitts that the art had little monetary value.
"My comment was, I still can't put it out on the curb," she said.
Loved ones want to preserve what artists spent a lifetime creating and, if possible, maintain or enhance their reputations. More than anything, they want the artists' work to be seen. However, those goals can be complicated by a finite art market and limits on what museums will buy or accept as donations.
"We get people calling us all the time about deceased relatives and saying, would you be interested in purchasing their family member's art," said Jonathan Gaugler, media relations manager for Carnegie Museum of Art. "There are as many answers as there are situations."
Even if the art is donated, Mr. Pearlstein said, the organizations accepting it must be able to take care of the work. "Ultimately, there is an investment on their part," he said.
Mr. Pearlstein said he believes much art eventually ends up in the trash because, somewhere along the line, families stop paying rent on storage lockers.
"Living artists have enough trouble getting galleries to represent them," he said. "An artist who's dead and didn't have much reputation when he died ... it's almost impossible."
Because of such concerns, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation in 1997 convened a two-day meeting of artists, lawyers, dealers and others at Mr. Pearlstein's Manhattan loft. Out of that conference came the estate planning guide, which encourages artists to create inventories of their work, set aside money to help their estates cover storage expenses and dispose of as much art as possible during their lives.
Ms. Pitts said Mr. Whittaker, a one-time New Yorker, had little commercial success after moving to Pittsburgh in 1999. Now, she wants to sell some of his works and donate others. She's making arrangements for a summer exhibit at Mendelson Gallery in Shadyside.
When artist and former Squirrel Hill resident Philip Mendlow died in 2007, he left behind a couple hundred works, all inherited by his nephew, Eric. Mr. Mendlow said friends suggested he throw the art in a Dumpster and get on with life. To Mr. Mendlow, also an artist, that notion was preposterous.
"I grew up admiring my uncle," he said, noting Philip Mendlow studied in Paris during the 1950s and later taught at La Roche College, Carlow University, Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 and the Ivy School for Professional Artists.
Today, Mr. Mendlow still has all but a couple of his uncle's pieces, which include paintings, sculptures and prints ranging from representational to abstract. He pays to keep them in storage, chafing at the cost but unsure of what else to do while he continues efforts to sell and donate the works.
"It was a big task to take on, and I was not prepared for it," Mr. Mendlow said.
In 1991, artist Bodhi Wind, a North Side native, was struck and killed while walking along a Los Angeles freeway. Mr. Wind graduated from Pittsburgh Perry High School before living in New Mexico and California, where his career included making clothing for Cher and murals for Robert Altman's 1977 film "3 Women."
He left behind 17 paintings and sketches -- at least that's as many as his mother, Jean Kuklis of Ross, has been able to find. She still has the 17 works, most of which are too large for her to display. She'd like to sell some of them but said she doesn't "have any idea how to go about getting somebody to do that for me."
Arthur S. Levine did know what to do. He arranged for Murrysville artists Adrienne Heinrich and Patricia Sheahan to find homes for the art left by his wife, Ruth E. Levine, who died in 2010.
"She left several hundred pieces," said Dr. Levine, the University of Pittsburgh's senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine. "She was a hard-working and productive, as well as accomplished, artist."
Ms. Sheahan and Ms. Heinrich spent about four months unwrapping, photographing, measuring, pricing and labeling Ms. Levine's works, which explore the subject of patterns. The pair arranged for exhibits at American Jewish Museum in Squirrel Hill, Eastside Gallery in East Liberty and Westmoreland Museum of American Art. Melissa Hiller, director of the American Jewish Museum, arranged for groups of schoolchildren to view the work.
Levine's work also is showcased at www.relevine.com. Sales benefit a memorial fund at the Carnegie, and Dr. Levine said remaining works will be taken by family members or donated to institutions.
A couple of months after his uncle's death, Eric Mendlow said, he went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and read about efforts that Edgar Degas' family made to preserve and market his work.
"It was just kind of a reaffirmation for me," he said.
First Published March 18, 2013 12:00 am