Donating Quilts – Leaving a Legacy: Donating Quilts to Museums

by Andi Reynolds

She said, “I suppose a museum is a celebration of death. Dead people’s lives, the objects they made, the things they thought important, their clothes, their houses, their daily comforts, their art.” “No, [he said], a museum is about life. It’s about the individual life, how it was lived….”
– Dialogue from The Murder Room by P.D. James, 2003

For many quilters and quilt collectors, quilting is about legacy, whether warm generational memories or mysterious auction finds. Because most quilters create their quilts for family, friends or charity, you might wonder how quilts end up in museums. Although donations from well-known collectors make the quilt world news, most museums build their collections as individual donors give one or two quilts to preserve their own legacies. Where do you come in?

Museum Acquisition Policy
While a museum wouldn’t be a museum without articles to exhibit, with very few exceptions, museums can’t take everything that walks in the door. Offered quilts need to fit within the museum’s mission statement or acquisition policy, says Anita Loscalzo, curator of the New England Quilt Museum. “Donors should research the museum’s interests to see if their quilt fits in. At NEQM, we consider ourselves a showplace for contemporary and traditional quilts, and they don’t have to be from New England to interest us.” As another example, potential donors enthusiastic about the recently opened Quilters Hall of Fame should know that everything in this collection must pertain to the Hall’s honorees, says QHF President Hazel Carter. Judy Schwender, curator at the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society, directs potential donors to their website (www.quiltmuseum.org) to review the mission statement and other information.

Even as museums accept quilts they may be working on redefining their mission statement and policies, as is true at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, says collections manager and Collections Committee chair Martha Spark. Says Carolyn Ducey, curator and Acquisitions Committee Chair at the International Quilt Study Center, “Our collection includes quilts that encompass all American traditions as well as those with international origins. Having been blessed with gifts of several private collections, now we are striving for balance. In fact, we are still defining our acquisition policy.” Such policies take years to develop; once in place, they take a long time to change.

Museums that don’t focus on quilts per se also have guidelines for donors to follow. Says Paula Locklair, vice president of the Horton Center at Old Salem (NC), home of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), “Although our primary interest in artifacts is pre-1820, our collection of quilts extends through the 19th century.” All agree with Marilyn Woodin, founder of the Kalona Quilt and Textile Museum, donor of its first 32 quilts and volunteer co-director/curator: “The hardest thing in the world to do is to turn something down.”

Condition, Significance and Provenance
After fitting in with the collection, the next vital consideration is the quilt’s condition. Says Loscalzo, “Restoration and conservation are very expensive. Unless the quilt has great historical significance or is of a type we really want, its condition can affect our decision to accept or acquire it.” The fabric stability and structural strength of your quilt are but two aspects of its condition. Although fragile fabrics are a detriment to overall condition, no one expects very old quilts to be perfectly preserved. Odor is not a problematic condition, although as a courtesy you should air out the quilt before showing it to others. Bugs and dirt, however, are serious problems for museums, as they must protect all of their artifacts from contamination, and both hasten deterioration. Even so,  you should not clean a quilt before showing it to a museum, says Schwender. “If conservators don’t know what (cleaning solution) is in a quilt or (what restoration has) been done to it, they can’t adequately care for the textile.” If the quilt has been cleaned or restored during your ownership, supply as much information to the museum as you can provide about the chemicals, materials and processes used.

Information about the quilt that helps establish its historical significance or provenance is another crucial acquisition element – and more is better. The date and place it was made; the birth and death dates of the maker; any role the quilt may have played in history, local or otherwise; images of the maker or the quilt’s owners; letters referencing the quilt; and even family hearsay all contribute to its importance to a museum’s collection. Says Schwender, “As the quilt public becomes more sophisticated, interpretation (in the form of signage and labels) and context become more important (to exhibits and to researchers).” Candace Perry, curator of the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center, believes that maintaining the tie between textile and maker is one of the most important efforts a museum can undertake; documentation provides that link. On the other hand, says Schwender, undocumented quilts can be spectacular and highly desirable, too, “because people often don’t understand the value (to our collection) of what they have.”

Making a Donation
After considering the museum’s mission, research how that institution uses its quilts, says Carter, also a certified quilt appraiser. “Do they often exhibit items in their collection? Do they offer traveling exhibits of their collection?” Knowing what the museum does with the quilts is important in keeping your expectations in check, because no museum can exhibit all of its possessions as often as donors might like to see them. This is due to budget, time and exhibition constraints as well as conservation considerations for the fragility of all textiles.

Potential donors should know that many museums use donated quilts to raise money to meet other needs. It is not unusual for museums to deaccession (sell or auction) one quilt when another of similar type but in better condition comes along. Furthermore, “As much as we like to accept quilts,” says Woodin, “if it doesn’t meet our acquisition needs, being able to sell a quilt to fund items such as acid free tissue paper, muslin, or facility maintenance is most helpful. If we decide to sell a quilt to help meet those needs, we try to contact the donor if this wasn’t made clear at the outset.” Most museums state this possibility in their donation forms.

If you are satisfied that your quilt might be of interest to a museum and you like what that institution does, take two good photographs of it – one overall, one detail. Mail or email them with a letter of your interest to the museum’s curator, director or collections manager. It helps if you present as much detail as you know in this letter, including a truthful description of its condition. While you are waiting for a reply, gather all the ephemera (patterns, letters, photos) relevant to the quilt in anticipation of taking the quilt in person to the museum. Be prepared to wait two or three weeks, at least, for an initial reply. Even well-funded museums have staff wearing multiple hats, and others operate with only volunteer or part-time staff, says Sparks.

When you take your quilt (and ephemera) to the museum, don’t expect an immediate answer. Most museums acquire artifacts via a committee process, which may take months. In anticipation of leaving your quilt with the museum for consideration, be sure it is clearly marked with a sewn-on label including your name and contact information. A good question to ask the curator while you’re there is when you might expect to hear a report from the acquisitions/collections committee. Mark that time on your calendar, then give the institution a couple of extra weeks to get back to you.

Once Your Quilt is Accepted
Both you and the museum need an appraisal of your quilt for a formal donation to occur. Says Locklair, “It is often helpful, for someone considering a museum donation, to have an appraisal made in advance (of approaching the museum). That way the donor can decide between making a donation or a direct sale. When having an appraisal made, be sure that the appraiser has all the historical information about the object – genealogy, any family history, an image of the maker if available – because this can often increase the value.”

The museum cannot steer you towards a specific appraiser or pay for this service, but they may have a list of area appraisers they can share with you. Check out the Professional Association of Appraisers: Quilted Textiles at www.quiltappraisers.org for more information about quilt appraisers and the appraisal process.

Legal, Financial and Tax Considerations
Donating a quilt means just that – it isn’t a purchase. Doris Bowman, Specialist, Textile Collection at the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian), notes that “Because quilts are so popular now and are being actively sold on the private market, they are usually too expensive for the institutional market (acquisition budget).” As a donor, however, you may receive a tax benefit; check with your tax accountant or attorney. And donating your quilt means letting go of it, fully. Museums must keep your donation for a minimum two-year period to satisfy tax requirements. You will sign a deed of gift, which makes the quilt the possession of the museum. Almost all institutions insist that donations come with no strings attached. This means you cannot insist that your quilt be displayed at certain intervals or locations or be exhibited using specific techniques.

“The IRS process requires that a donation appraisal be done within 60 days of the donation date,” says certified quilt appraiser Teddy Pruett. “Be aware that if this is a quilt you made yourself, you will only be able to deduct the actual cost of the materials used.”

If you want your quilt to be donated posthumously, take care of these donation issues yourself in advance. Then spell out exactly what you want to have happen in your will (see Quilters Newsletter Magazine # 314 (June/July 1999), “The Legalities of Willing Your Quilts and Stash” by Casey Gluckman).

Alternatives to Museum Donation
What happens if your quilt is not accepted as a donation? If supporting a favorite museum is the driving force behind your desire to donate your quilts, auctioning or selling your quilts to provide the institution with a financial gift might be their best possible use. Possible markets include those on-line or working with a textile or antiques dealer you trust.

If seeing your quilts publicly displayed or making them available for others to see is your goal, consider keeping your quilts together as a collection that can be loaned. This will require you or your heirs to store, ship, track, monitor the collection’s condition, insure and make known the quilts’ availability, or to assign a trust to perform these duties.

Ducey suggests an option for quilts whose condition precludes them from being added to permanent museum collections – use as “education” pieces, which means they are shown frequently at lectures and symposia for collectors and often used and touched by school children or professionals training to be restorers or conservators. Although this application shortens a textile’s life, it is a valuable use of donated quilts that museums and many educational institutions appreciate.

Regardless of your quilt’s or collection’s ultimate destination, be sure each item is clearly and sufficiently labeled to preserve the quilt/quiltmaker/collector connection for the future. Having your quilt listed in a research database such as your state’s quilt heritage project or through the Alliance for American Quilts (www.quiltalliance.org), The Quilt Index (www.quiltindex.org) or at a study center such as IQSC will be of great benefit for future researchers and the ultimate history – and legacy – of quilting.

Historical Societies and Other Museums
Many historical societies at local and state levels maintain wonderful textile collections, and many historic buildings are homes to locally connected textiles, which they appreciate receiving. Teddy Pruett, certified quilt appraiser, says, “A museum in the area where the quilt was made is more likely to be interested in that particular piece of material culture.” For more information, see the American Association of Museums website: www.aam-us.org or search the Internet for “your state” or “your county” historical society or building. Also try searching for museums or historical buildings and societies by topic, such as African American, cowboy or railroad.

If you are an alumnae and prefer supporting an academic institution, bear in mind that many colleges and universities have quilts and textiles held in unusual places such as home economics or fashion design departments, even rare holdings libraries.

Remember also that some art, historic, state, living or other purpose museums hold extensive quilt collections and exhibit them periodically. The brief list below names but a random few as examples. For others, and for information on private collections, see “American Quilt Collections: American Quilt Masterpieces” by Shelly Zegart (Nihon Vogue, 1996) and “Quilt Collections: A Directory for the United States and Canada” by Linda Oshins  (American Folklife Center, 1988).

Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, CT), Shelburne Museum (VT), the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the Met (NYC), Daughters of the American Revolution Museum (Washington, DC), Winterthur (Delaware), Great Lakes Quilt Center (East Lansing, MI), Old Sturbridge Village (MA), Newark Museum (Newark, NJ), Colonial Williamsburg (VA), Spencer Museum of Art (Lawrence, KS).

One Donor’s Perspective

In late summer 2004, after a five-year process of thinking about donating her quilts, Linda Carlson of Mexico, Missouri gave her extensive four-block quilt collection to the International Quilt Study Center. A teacher, author, designer and collector (www.lindacarlsonquilts.com), she says, “The safety and security of this valuable group of 34 quilts led me to consider donating them. Specifically, my husband was afraid of what a fire in our home might do. And, I knew this was such a unique collection of a specific type of quilt, I couldn’t bear the thought of the collection being broken apart.”

Since the 1980s Linda had acquired the best examples of the most popular four-block patterns: Princess (Prince’s) Feather, Floral-filled Urn, Rose of Sharon (Whig Rose), Tree of Life and Blazing Star. She visited several institutions where “I looked for a place that could handle this many quilts in the best possible environment for temperature, light and humidity control.” As with all museums, the IQSC sent Linda a list of provisos about what they could and could not do with her quilts. Included was the bitter pill that at some point, some of the quilts might be sold. “But that would have been true anywhere and my quilts are in a great facility for care and study,” she says.

Although letting go of her quilts was quite emotional, Linda is happy that she will participate in curating a 2006 exhibit of her four-block quilts when the IQSC’s new facility opens. Her advice for current quilt owners: “Enjoy your quilts while they are in your possession. Display them safely (light and temperature wise) and store them properly. Know what your priorities are when you begin researching possible recipients for your quilts. If you need to sell your quilts to recoup your investment, try to sell them where the buyer will appreciate what you have, such as through a quilt guild.”

Quilt Museums in the U.S.

Although we’ve been quilting in America for centuries, of the approximately 16,000 museums in the U.S., at press time only 12 are dedicated solely to quilts or quilts and textiles and the oldest (San Jose), just opened in 1977. Others are underway or being considered in Florida, Georgia, Washington and Wisconsin.

San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, San Jose, CA – (www.sjquiltmuseum.org)
Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, Golden, CO – (www.rmqm.org)
Kalona Quilt and Textile Museum, Kalona, IA (www.kalonaiowa.org/village/)
Quilters Hall of Fame, Marion, IN (www.quiltershalloffame.net)
Museum of the American Quilters Society, Paducah, KY – (www.quiltmuseum.org)
New England Quilt Museum, Lowell, MA –  (www.nequiltmuseum.org)
International Quilt Study Center, Lincoln, NE – (www.quiltstudy.org)
Latimer Quilt and Textile Museum, Tillamook, OR – (www.oregoncoast.com/latimertextile)
The People’s Place Quilt Museum, Intercourse, PA (www.ppquiltmuseum.com)
Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum, Lancaster, PA – (www.quiltandtextilemuseum.com)
Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg, VA (www.vaquiltmuseum.org)
La Conner Quilt Museum, La Conner, WA (www.laconnerquilts.com)

Andi Reynolds writes, lectures, teaches and quilts in Keota, Iowa. She may be reached at andi0613@iowatelecom.net.

The author owns the intellectual rights and copyright to this article.  Sharing this site link is appreciated – thank you, SAQA, for reprinting the article here – but any oral, electronic or printed use of the article requires express permission from the author.

Comments are closed.