If you desire your archives to have a permanent home and not end up in someone’s attic, you need to do some prior planning. Specifically, you need to investigate who may be interested in acquiring your archives, or portions of them. Unless the acquirer is an institution that wants the “whole photographer” for teaching or research purposes, you may find that it makes sense to place different elements of your archives with different recipients. If you have work that has previously been acquired by museums or institutions, it may be appropriate to contact them and see what level of interest they may have in expanding their collections.
Think outside the box: Are there organizations not customarily associated with photography that would have an interest in your photographs of a particular subject matter? As the photographer, you should do the leg work. Not only will you be more effective, but also you will be able to determine where you are comfortable having your life’s work reside.
For those not familiar with your work and perhaps those that are, you should have examples of your work available in digital form. It’s no different from shopping for gallery representation; no one wants a portfolio of matted prints at the outset.
A published photo magazine retrospective of your work would be of great assistance in getting attention. Lenswork in particular comes to mind but there are others
As to money, some institutions pay for archives, some don’t and some want a subsidy for the cost of conservation. Seek to get an expression of interest first, and if that is forthcoming, inquire as to whether there is a capacity to pay and if so, how much.
The transfer of the work can be now or on death, or both. But no matter when the gift is made, there is no substitute for having the entire archive organized and cataloged. The more organized the archive the more attractive it will be to an acquiring institution because it doesn’t have to use its limited resources “cleaning house.”
Making a plan for what happens to your photographs is the first important step, but in order to ensure that your wishes are followed should you die before your archive is placed, you need to contact a lawyer who specializes in estate planning law and have them draw up a will or trust.
State law tells us what happens to one’s assets if the decedent dies “intestate,” i.e. without a will or trust: a relative or close friend, or if the Court is so inclined a public administrator, will be appointed administrator of the estate to collect and organize the assets, pay the debts and distribute the rest, net of the administrator’s compensation, to the next of kin. In the absence of spouse, parents or children, that will mean siblings or the children of siblings. Almost by definition the administrator will know nothing about photographic assets and what to do with them. That’s why one needs to have a will or trust.
A will is a set of instructions to an executor as to what is to be done with one’s property on death. The executor nominated in the will gets confirmed by the Court and undertakes to “execute” the instructions in the will.
A trust is similar to a will in that it instructs the trustee what the individual (usually referred to as the “trustor”) wants done, but it takes effect now. The individual is often the trustee during his or her lifetime and has the right to amend or revoke the trust. On the trustor’s death, the person designated the successor trustee takes over authority and responsibility. With both a will and a trust, the individual is able to craft instructions that reflect his or her interests and desires. The executor is answerable to the Court to make sure that the provisions of the will are carried out; the trust is usually outside of the purview of the Court.
For a photographer it is particularly important to have a will or trust. It is common to have both, where the will picks up any assets that did not get put into the trust before death and “pours over” those assets to the trust. Since the talents of an executor or trustee may not include expertise in connection with the disposition of photographic archives, it may be appropriate to appoint a photographic executor or trustee whose responsibilities are limited to those archives, or to find an overall executor or trustee who is knowledgeable about photography.