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Digging Into a Dispute Over a Company Entrusted With Art

Digging Into a Dispute Over a Company Entrusted With Art

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​​The story started with the artists.

More than 140 of them had joined a chat room, where they shared their concerns and questions about the Artist Pension Trust, a company created in 2004 that had promised to help them provide for the future.

Artists in the trust had agreed to each contribute 20 pieces of their work over 20 years, which the company pledged to store, insure and in some cases sell. While only some artists were likely to hit it big, all the artists in the trust would share in the proceeds from any sales. Given the uncertainty of the art market, artists were drawn to the prospect of some financial security.

Siddhartha Mitter, a freelance writer for The New York Times, had heard about the chat, and that artists had grown increasingly disillusioned with the company.

After only a few sales and a proposed contract change in 2017 asking artists to cover storage costs, the pension trust company seemed to be struggling. Artists who tried to retrieve their work for exhibitions or interested buyers had been unable to get responses.

Siddhartha and I, under the guidance of Kevin Flynn, the Culture desk’s investigations editor, decided to try to get to the bottom of what was going on. While others had written about problems with the pension trust company before, those issues seemed to have intensified. We recently published the result of our reporting, in which we found that the company had failed to make good on some of its pledges.

In May, Siddhartha and I started by dividing up a list of some of the 2,000 artists in 75 countries. I took New York, he Los Angeles. We also reached out to artists in some of the other pools around the world, which included London, Berlin, Mexico City, Beijing, Mumbai and Dubai. Between the two of us, we spoke to scores of artists, just about every one of whom recounted the same story: They had joined the trust hopeful that it might help them build a nest egg, given an otherwise unpredictable future.

They used to be in close touch with the directors of each regional pool, who had visited their studios, kept them abreast of developments and made them feel connected to the larger enterprise.

But there hadn’t been many sales or payouts, according to those we interviewed. Many of the representatives had moved on without being replaced, and the artists no longer knew whom to contact. The artists weren’t sure about the location of their work, its condition or how to get it out of the trust if collectors had expressed an interest in buying or museums wanted to show it. Many artists who were interviewed said they felt ghosted by the company, betrayed.

We asked them to send us their contracts, so we could understand the fee split and what the company had originally promised, like safe storage, insurance, efforts to sell works at opportune times and annual status reports on the pools.

We contacted current and former employees and ultimately tried to get everyone on the record, so that we could quote them by name.

Not everyone was keen to talk; some former trust employees did not reply to our repeated inquiries. And some artists did not want to revisit their negative experiences with the trust. But an unusually large number of artists were willing to talk on the record, eager to publicly air the misgivings they had been harboring privately.

We reached out to the founder of the company, Moti Shniberg, who declined to be interviewed but then agreed to answer questions by email. We sent him an initial series of questions, then several rounds of follow-up queries. While Mr. Shniberg acknowledged that the company had discontinued annual reports to artists — because of financial constraints, he said — he insisted that he continued to believe in the model.

We researched legal actions against the company and learned that one artist, Shaun Leonardo, had recently sued in New York, demanding the return of his artwork and accusing the trust of breach of contract.

Having been told by some former employees that the condition of the storage facilities was at times inadequate, we asked Mr. Shniberg for permission to see for ourselves, sending stringers, or freelance reporters, to the two main storage locations — one in Leipzig, Germany; the other in Liverpool, N.Y.

We spent a lot of time trying to understand the complex structure of the company, ultimately determining that each pool was set up as a separate business, with some registered in Delaware and others in the British Virgin Islands.

While some of the research was plodding and painstaking, we felt it was important to thoroughly understand the workings of the company, the people involved and the complete history — knowing that much of that detail would end up on the cutting-room floor to accommodate a limited word count.

Throughout the reporting process, we puzzled over the larger narrative. Was this a company that had set out to exploit artists at the outset — as some of the pension trust artists now feared? Was this an example of a well-intentioned idea gone wrong? What larger story did it tell about struggling artists and how hard it is to find financial stability?

As we were getting ready to publish, Mr. Shniberg sent an email citing recent sales of work by the artists Hank Willis Thomas and Mequitta Ahuja as evidence that the trust was functioning.

We then contacted those artists and learned that they or their galleries had initiated those sales, though Mr. Shniberg said the trust had handled the administrative matters and, in one case, negotiated the price.

After the article was published, we heard from many of the artists we interviewed as well as others who shared similar experiences on social media. We look forward to covering any further developments, either from action on the part of the artists or some effort by the pension trust company to be more transparent about its current condition.

“Thank you for doing this important story,” wrote Blane De St. Croix, a pension trust artist who tried unsuccessfully to get his paintings for his current show at Mass MoCA. “I hope all of us artists can receive our work back.”

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