Last Will and Testament of the an Artist
October 17, 2012 7:02 PM   Subscribe

Artists, what will happen to your writings music and artworks if/when you die? Any ideas? Do you have a will, and a clause with some legal language?

Kafka left instructions to have his work burned --- and look how that turned out.

I also heard a horror story about all of Marshall McLuhan's papers and notes being thrown to the curbside for recycling when he died.

I personally feel my unfinished work could conceivably be fixed up by a certain caliber of artist, but any artist of such a caliber should be pretty busy working on their own stuff, feels very Catch-22. I think my cousin Steve would know what to do with everything, and recognize the "value" in what I have created, but he's way too busy to ever do all the work.

How would I set up a trust to hire employees to scan everything in and put it online for free into the Creative-Commons?

Artists of Metafilter, what ideas have you had about what should happen to all of your unfinished work should you unexpectedly die? What have other famous artists done?
posted by shipbreaker to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
As Kafka's literary executor, Brod refused to follow the writer's instructions to burn his life's work, and had them published instead.
posted by shipbreaker at 7:06 PM on October 17, 2012

I think I want mine prosecuted, since it will likely be the thing that kills me. The method of death will probably involve poverty, too.

(In my case, I don't do it for sale, but it sure interferes with me making a living as an engineer and I don't ever calculate what I'd have to sell it for to break even. )

I have a local friend who is trashing hers in advance of death, forgetting it, and giving it away. Another is just making making making. My sculpture mentor is also planning to make until he can't any more which is coming because our medium is marble and it's kinda heavy and hard work and he is getting up there in years and I am not far behind. I have another friend who insists on burning 100% of her work on death since she is pissed no one buys her photographs while she is alive and screw them, they aren't going to get it free when she dies.

I've seen piles of uncountable work stretching over forever in more than one studio. Almost 100% of artists I know (and that's a bunch) produce many times more than they sell, if they even sell. Hell, they produce many times more than they even show. They have rooms full of experiments, sheds full of old work, boxes full of materials and tools. What they usually DON'T have is customers or people to appreciate their efforts.

When the producer finishes the product, that's really the end of the process, not death. Death is when the process stops for good.

On Michaelangelo's death, he left behind some unfinished stuff and it stayed that way. While alive, he abandoned the Florence pieta and a very competent sculptor attempted to finish it with what can only be called unsuccessful results. Two species of human worked on that piece and a glance will tell you where each worked. Michaelangelo's unfinished work is superior in every aspect to the finished work of his follow up crew.

Unless you have something truuuuuuuuuuuly marvelous, I think you are right. No one who is doing their own thing will waste their time on yours. Why on earth would they? There is no shortage of ideas in any artist's head, only shortages of lifetime and finances. If you think it's good enough to finish, it's probably a good idea to finish it. Otherwise, dumpster city, dude.

Regardless, you can specify anything you want in a will. Often, it will get faithfully executed, but not always. Wouldn't you think that if the work was really valuable, it would sell pre-death? One observation I have made is that there are HUGE numbers of extremely capable artists making art that no one will ever see, or buy. That's why the only folks I know making a buck do portraits in paint, stone, bronze on commission. If they have money left after that, they do what they want to do and hope it sells someday. The other pile of people making a buck are art whores, who sell their specialized skills to make art in the name of other people (i.e., bronze casters, model enlargers, letterers.)

Art is weird crap. It is as individual as speech, just as common and necessary, and just about as valuable. Interesting question. It honestly never occurred to me that anything other than diaspora would await what I do. Doesn't stop me from doing it and I don't care one way or the other. YMMV.

(In my family, my grandfather made decoys and was posthumously famous and "collectable". Pieces of his work have sold for ridiculous prices. When he was alive, he threw damaged work into his wood stove and burned it for heat. Who knows what's gonna happen when you die?)
posted by FauxScot at 7:52 PM on October 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

Awww yisss, I need more great answers like this. Thanks!

I am in the "make make make" category, and because my medium is music and 2 Terabyte hard drives cost $50 nowadays, I sense my returns are diminishing to sub-microscopic levels, it's very very daunting. But I aint gonna stop. I guess I need to "produce" finished products, and/or just keep enjoying the make.
posted by shipbreaker at 8:07 PM on October 17, 2012

I've been moving books around in an old warehouse. The authors have left behind finished products. The authors are all dead and gone now, and nobody really cares much any more about what they wrote. It's sad. It's making me think a lot about the Now and the Past. The Now really doesn't care too much about the Past, does it? unless the thing in question was Truly Great (((Abraham Lincoln? The Bible? Pink Floyd DARK SIDE OF THE MOON)))
posted by shipbreaker at 8:26 PM on October 17, 2012

I worked in a book manufacturing plant. POETS would make 100, 200 copies of their POETRY book. We had so many extra POETRY BOOKS. Nobody wanted all our extra leftover remainder POETRY BOOKS. That, too, was sad.

Didn't seem to stop the poets though, or even slow them down.
posted by shipbreaker at 8:32 PM on October 17, 2012

Another example of the Now not caring too much about the Past is the way the REDDIT website is designed. Items peak after four to eight hours, and are never seen again after that unless you deliberately seek out the "Best-Of" lists for the week, the month, the alltime.
posted by shipbreaker at 8:51 PM on October 17, 2012

Author Neil Gaiman is on a crusade to make sure creative people (of all sorts) have wills that deal their works. He's got a blog post on the topic, with a link to a sample will which deals with forming a Creative Property Trust.
posted by jeri at 9:02 PM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my will, my intellectual property goes to my heirs like the rest of my property. (I'm making a living from creative work and the work is intellectual property rather than anything physical; since I'm a composer, the work is a bunch of PDFs of scores). It all will stay registered with ASCAP and they're very used to dealing with a member's estate rather than with the member (although if I died tomorrow, my income would drop fast, because currently most of my income is from things only a living person does [getting commissions/prizes/grants] and less is from performance royalties and ASCAPlus).

There's nothing in my will about unfinished works; whatever I'm working on as of my death will be such a small fraction of my circulating work that I've never thought about this as an issue. You bring up an interesting point, though, because when I'm working on a big commission we've got enough people and enough money/planning invested in the outcome that there probably should be a provision in the contract about whether the group could commission somebody else to finish the piece if I suddenly died with it mostly finished (and how to define 'mostly finished'). I'd be fine with that and I know people I'd trust with that work. (I've never heard of such a contract provision, and as a healthy 35-year-old female I've never thought about it, but it's an interesting question!)
posted by kalapierson at 9:34 PM on October 17, 2012

I've always liked to imagine myself leaving my "papers" to some kind of high-falutin institution like an archive or a university library.

But who am I kidding?

Most likely I would leave them to the loved one who I felt, at the time, would best know what to do with them. I have a sense of who that is right now, but it feels pretty silly to write a will at 31, and even sillier to spell out what should happen to my box of half-assed journals and my external hard drive of blog entry backups, forgotten short stories, and that screenplay nobody's ever going to buy.
posted by Sara C. at 9:35 PM on October 17, 2012

(I also would like to will that my intellectual property/estate rights/etc revert to the public domain on my death. I love my family and all, but they didn't make my art and do not own it.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:37 PM on October 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sara C, the point of my question is to try to steer myself away from "Who am I kidding" defeatism and more towards "My stuff is valuable and important, omg, time is running out, I had better think this through, this thing that I seem to be doing with all of my time!"
posted by shipbreaker at 9:39 PM on October 17, 2012

(I also would like to will that my intellectual property/estate rights/etc revert to the public domain on my death. I love my family and all, but they didn't make my art and do not own it.)

This is my plan, too. Remix culture can give work new life and legs. In contrast, estate representatives like Stephen Joyce seem pretty leechlike to me.

I should get on having a will done, actually.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:41 PM on October 17, 2012

Sara C is zeroing in on what I'm interested in..... Turning around a defeatist "oh who am I kidding? all my art will hit the dumpster" into purpose-driven action which forces me to finish things and to think about why I'm doing it at all.

Everybody should check out that Neil Gaiman link.
posted by shipbreaker at 9:47 PM on October 17, 2012

[Shipbreaker, you can get ideas and suggestions about your question here, but this is not a space for general discussion and chat. You need to relax with the commenting now unless someone has a specific question for you, and just let people answer.]
posted by taz (staff) at 10:35 PM on October 17, 2012

I have a relative who is an artist, and she seems quite concerned that her heirs will be taxed on the value of her artwork if they inherit it through a will. "Value" is determined as the prices she has attempted to sell the works for, and comparable to prices she has gotten for similar pieces. I have no idea whether that's a valid concern, but it might be worth checking if you honestly think your stuff could be considered valuable.
posted by vytae at 4:15 AM on October 18, 2012

Yeah, one of the concerns in the visual arts is that, at the end of the day, an artwork is an object. It's made of materials. Even if it's not valuable as art, it's still a physical thing a person can inherit, and as such it has value. If the materials involved are valuable in and of themselves, a person could definitely inherit a pile of "worthless" paintings that still have substantial monetary value. Just like a person could inherit an ugly derelict house, or a car that doesn't run, or a pile of useless personal effects.
posted by Sara C. at 7:16 AM on October 18, 2012

If you are really serious about preserving your work after death, then I think the only remotely effective means is to establish an endowed trust. That is to say, you leave your work to an institution such as a museum, university or library, along with money (preferably investments which will maintain their value), and a legal document which entails the acceptable uses of that money, i.e., to preserve, curate and exhibit the work.

Leaving a large box of material to an institution is not a gift, it's a liability. It takes a lot of skilled labor and time to sort through the materials, not to mention space to keep them properly stored. That's why you give money as well. The endowment allows the institution to use the money to pay for the labor involved, or to create a gallery space for the work, or to maintain a special collection in a museum, library or archives.

Caveats: if your work becomes super-valuable after you die, then institutions might try to sell it for cash or otherwise monetize it (see the fate of the Barnes art collection as related in the movie The Art of the Steal). Likewise, legal voodoo might come into play to allow the institution to redirect the trust's endowment to things other than your original intention. But the legal limitations of the trust are the best chance you've got.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:55 AM on October 18, 2012

Another thing to think about is the work that is sub-par that you have sitting around but don't think is up to the quality of your really good stuff. A professor of mine in art school urged us all to weed constantly and not keep anything around that you aren't really pleased with for fear of the less good work out-living one. As I get older I try to be more merciless about weeding.
posted by leslies at 11:54 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Best way to use a Concept2 rower   |   I just moved within the same county, can I still... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.