The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) recently invited me to write a short piece for their “Strictly Business” blog, a multi-author blog featuring over 30 regular contributors and frequent guest experts. For professional still and motion photographers, their archive of articles provide invaluable insight into current best business practices and industry trends.
The “Strictly Business” postings for the first two weeks of September are dedicated to the theme of legacy issues and estate planning for photographers. Contributors are a mix of photographers who have gone through this process plus legal experts, curators, financial advisers and appraisers. Below is copy of my article. Enjoy!
It took the Estate of Robert Doisneau six years to settle and the Todd Walker Estate ten years. What does this mean exactly? For the photography market, it meant that, after the artists died, their artwork was taken out of circulation until such time that the executor could complete the process of getting their property— including intellectual property rights—legally transferred and applicable taxes paid.
With respect to an artist’s legacy, time is critical. For famous photographers like Robert Doisneau whose images have become iconic, the wait for re-release of prints can build anticipation and bolster lofty prices. For lesser-known but historically important artists like Todd Walker (American, 1917 – 1998), however, the longer it takes to settle the estate the greater the negative impact to the artist’s marketability.
In the case of the Walker Archive, the primary issue that prolonged the process was that the museums that had been bequeathed prints were slow in getting the approval from their acquisition committees. This was key for tax purposes, in that the charitable gift of artwork—appraised at Fair Market Value—would offset the taxes owed on the estate. While Melanie Walker, the artist’s daughter and executor, waited for the ten museums to officially accept the gifts of artwork, she spent her time cataloging the 15,000 sabatier, gum-bichromate, collotype, gelatin silver prints, photo-litho prints and artist books her father had created over the previous six decades. Unfortunately, by the time all of the Deeds of Gift were received and the estate was officially settled, the recession had hit and many of the galleries that had called right after her father died could no longer afford to invest in the marketing to revive his name to its former distinction.
There is no way to predict what the economic climate will be when the time comes. That said, the moral of this tale revolves around planning: Have conversations in advance with curators about bequeathing your artwork; talk to an estate attorney to see if a Will is sufficient or if a Living Trust makes more sense for your situation; if you’re worried about money, a life insurance policy can be a lifesaver, helping your family and/or executor pay for storage, appraisals and taxes. Most importantly, sit down with the person you want as caretaker of your images and artwork and walk them through your business, introduce them to your trusted advisors, agents and gallerists, let them know which museums and libraries you’re talking to about your work or archive, and be realistic about the likely future sales &/or licensing of your photographs.
A partial retrospective of Todd Walker’s work, “Anticipating Digital,” was exhibited at Stanford University Art Gallery (2004) and subsequently at the Center for Creative Photography (2013), and the Walker Archive is currently represented by the Etherton Gallery in Tucson and the dnj gallery in Santa Monica. Ms. Walker’s efforts have been tireless and fairly fruitful, but there is still a sense that opportunities were missed. Not to mention that she can only hope that this is what her father would have wanted.
Your photographs come with an extraordinary amount of responsibility. Making the proper preparations and having conversations in advance allows for greater assurances that your wishes will be realized when you’re no longer around.
—Jennifer Stoots, AAA
 For 1998 the Federal Exemption rate was only $625,000, compared to the current rate of $5.43 Million. “Exemption from Federal Estate Taxes: 1997 – 2015,” AboutMoney.com, accessed August 21, 2015, http://wills.about.com/od/understandingestatetaxes/a/estatetaxchart.htm.