Understanding the term "legacy"

The term legacy is widely used in a variety of contexts—law, history, business—yet it is porous to the point of being hollow. In my professional work with artists and artists’ estates, I encounter situations where ambiguity of the term translates into ambiguity of planning and strategy. The term also begs to be better defined as it anchors the emerging field of Legacy Studies within Art History.  

The refrain to a song by Eminem includes the lines:

This is my legacy, legacy, yeah
There is no guarantee, it’s not up to me, we can only see

Indeed, the key to finding meaning in the current cultural application of the term legacy is in its intentionality. To what extent can it be destined or guaranteed?

Etymologically, legacy is derived from Latin legare, generally meaning something bequeathed. There are two diverging applications of the term. The first indicates a negative, stubborn residual— something that influences the present. Such is its sense in “the legacy of colonialism” or “the legacy of communism.” The cultural, economic, or political burden inherited by one generation from another, is thus seen as not intentional, but baked into the societal framework in a lasting, unyielding way.

Nicole Dextras, Legacy, Ice, 8 foot high ice text on the Yukon River, Dawson City, Yukon. 

Nicole Dextras, Legacy, Ice, 8 foot high ice text on the Yukon River, Dawson City, Yukon. 

A contrasting sense of legacy postulates an intentional gesture, a gift structured to benefit the future. In a legal context, a legacy is a gift of property left in a will. In the cases of artists, writers, and musicians, this intentional sense of legacy can be further separated into two distinct categories:

1) An artist can bequeath real estate, cash, and other tangible assets (such as art) to an institution that will steward them to advance the individual’s vision. One’s legacy will be maintained by a benefiting future generations through a charitable mission. As an example, a year prior to her death in 1985, Marie Walsh Sharpe established a foundation, bequeathing her estate to support gifted American visual artists. For nearly a quarter of a century, the foundation offered free studio space for year to artists selected by a jury of fellow artists. Legacy planning or legacy gifts in this sense mean a transfer of liquid assets to public institutions in order to operate programs to further the donor’s intent. In this case, legacy is not necessarily tethered to the donor’s creative output.

2) An artist may desire to secure a cultural legacy based on a lifetime’s work. In the past, public recognition or oblivion were seen as a matter of fate. In the words of Eminem, “it’s not up to me, we can only see.” Vagaries of the art market, trends in scholarship, and museum politics, contributed to canonizing certain artists while obscuring the names of others. In the last two decades, however, artists have been encouraged to be proactive about legacy planning. Institutions such as the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation, and Artist Trust, have run programs and issued guidelines for artists, ranging from assistance in cataloging their work to recommendations on estate planning strategies. Last year, Research Center for Art and Culture (RCAC) launched the Elder Artists' Legal Resource, a website based on nearly a decade of research into the needs of aging artists. The website provides advice and templates for inventory development, valuation and taxation issues, and estate planning. By now, over three hundred artists across the U.S. have opted to start their own foundations to ensure the long-term impact of their work. The Aspen Institute’s Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative identifies them as “a rapidly emerging force in cultural philanthropy and artistic heritage stewardship.”

The idea of intentional control and premeditation of an artist’s legacy as  positive cultural contribution to future generations is rather new. It stands in sharp contrast to the romantic notion of a sensational discovery of an unrecognized genius and a random sleight of fate. The growing approbation of legacy planning by living artists indicates a trend to consider visual artists’ work as an asset than can be controlled by the maker rather than the market. Envisioning the footprint one leaves on the culture should not be solely the privilege of those who possess tangible assets to be bequeathed. At KunstWorks, our goal is to help artists find new ways to assert influence over their intellectual property and legacy.