Acquiring Media Art

Because media artworks require a proactive approach to care and management, the moment of acquisition is critical in gathering information that will ensure their display and care into the future.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila Anne, Akie & God 1998 © Eija-Liisa Ahtila

In this guide, the acquisition process is discussed in three overlapping phases: pre-acquisition, accessioning, and post-acquisition. Although these three phases are distinct, knowledge about the artwork continuously builds from the moment it is considered for acquisition to final installation and long-term storage. This knowledge informs future decisions about storing, exhibiting, loaning, and conserving the work.


  • What information do I need to make a decision about a possible acquisition?
  • How do I anticipate the cost of owning this work?
  • What master material and equipment should come with the acquisition?

The focus of the pre-acquisition phase for media art is deciding whether to acquire the work of art. Information gathered during this phase is used to justify the acquisition and to forecast costs, installation logistics, and conservation concerns for future ownership. This information falls into two main categories, conceptual and technical. An understanding of the conceptual and technical elements that comprise the work of art is essential for acquisition consideration, but also to the continued viability and authentic presentation of the work. In reality, there is often little time prior to an acquisition to gather all the information in detail. However, you are aiming to gain a general understanding of the areas outlined below. The information collected during the pre-acquisition phase provides a baseline of knowledge for deeper levels of documentation after the work is acquired.

Prior to acquisition of a media artwork, the following steps may be taken by a curator or collector:

What is it?

Understand what you are proposing to acquire: what is it? Gather general information: artist, title, date, medium, duration, edition details, provenance, artist’s dates, credit line, display dimensions. Understand key qualities of the work and prepare a description of the elements necessary to maintain the integrity of the artwork. This includes:

  • Artist statement about the work (from artist, gallery or seller)
  • Curatorial/collector statement for importance in collection
  • Non-technical description of what the viewer experiences
  • Basic installation specifications

Explore Deeper

Based on the artist’s statement and installation instructions, determine the following:

  • What are the essential vs. desirable exhibition conditions, including space requirements?
  • What can and cannot be changed in the display?
  • Can you physically display the work in your exhibition space?

You also need to determine:

  • Original master: Where is it? What is the format? Where does it reside? Who owns it?
  • Who owns the copyright to the work?
  • Acquire reference images that will facilitate the acquisition process (stills or screen grabs, installation photo, exhibition copy, etc.)

Assemble Expertise

  • In order to proceed, the curator/collector will need to gather more detailed information relying on the expertise of a larger group of people.
  • Large institutions may assemble a team comprising some or all of the following expertise: curatorial, conservation, registration exhibitions, technical/media/audio-visual, IT, legal/intellectual property.
  • Collectors and small institutions may find knowledgeable technical support: contact a museum conservation department, art gallery, art consultant, and/or artist/studio to recommend sources.

Get the Details

Once team/resources are established, curator/collector presents the proposed acquisition. The following information may be gathered both internally and externally. Identify one person to be the co-ordinator for this process. In some circumstances, cataloguing the work may begin prior to acquisition (see details in post-acqusition phase). Before proceeding with the acquisition, consider the key questions at the head of each section below.



  • What equipment is provided and what must be purchased (and what are the costs)?
  • How specific is the equipment to the work – is this going to present challenges in the future?
  • What is the minimum level of technical expertise necessary?

Determine which equipment is ‘dedicated’ and which is ‘non-dedicated’. It is important to understand the relationship of the display equipment to the installation. Many artists have strong views about the equipment to be used in the display of their work and see it as integral because of the impact it has on how the work is experienced. Each case must be considered individually to determine what is appropriate to change and what must remain constant in the display of a work. It is necessary to involve the curator and wherever possible the artist or their representative in these decisions. There are degrees of change: changing a particular item of equipment for one of the same make and model; changing the make and model but keeping the technology the same; changing the technology completely.

Dedicated equipment

Dedicated equipment

A particular item of equipment may be dedicated because it has been functionally or visibly modified or made by the artist (or for the artist) and is therefore irreplaceable.

Specific makes and models of equipment may be designated by the artist as essential to the realisation and experience of their work. In such cases it is important to maintain this equipment even when it becomes obsolete.

There may be instances when equipment is replaceable but remains assigned to the work of art as a legal stipulation in the acquisition agreement and is therefore not useable in any other installation.

A group of works may depend on a particular make and model of equipment or technology that is becoming increasingly rare. In such cases you may wish to reserve the use of this equipment for this group of works.

Non-dedicated equipment

Non-dedicated equipment

Although the artist may have specific requirements for display equipment, the equipment may be generic and widely available. In such cases the actual piece of equipment is not assigned to the artwork but used for the display of a range of works.

Installation specifications

Installation specifications

  • How large a space is required?
  • Does the installation require construction of a specific space?
  • What specialist skills are required to install and keep the work running?
  • What are the costs of installation and operation of the work?
  • Review the installation specifications and determine if there is enough detailed information to properly install the work.
  • An installation specifications template can be used as a starting point for the type of information you gather.
  • If necessary, prepare additional questions for the artist/studio or gallery to get the information that you need.

Photo of conservator assessing a video

Glenn Wharton and Peter Oleksik from MOMA NY preview a digital video. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


During this pre-acquisition phase, there is often limited time to gather important information necessary for making a presentation to a board, committee, or self. The goal at this point is to begin the process of assessment that will eventually lead to completion of structure and condition reports during the post-acquisition phase. At this stage, here are some core things to think about:

  • Is this work currently ‘exhibitable’ and can this be sustained?
  • Determine the ‘exhibitability’ of the media: assess the playback quality, if the offered format is provided at this stage. From an exhibition history of the provided materials, determine duration of previous display. Make recommendations for preferred media format if different from what is being offered.
  • Assess the condition of display equipment offered with the work: how old is the equipment? How many times has it been used/ displayed? Has it ever been serviced?
  • Assess the condition of the sculptural elements in the installation.


In addition to the costs itemized below, there will be long- and short-term costs associated with the care of media art. A cost-assessment worksheet will help to estimate the financial commitment necessary for acquiring the work.

Acquisition costs

Acquisition costs

  • Will the available format need to be migrated before acquisition? Will the cost of this be covered by the buyer or seller?
  • Are there crating and transit costs? Will they be covered by the buyer or seller?

Exhibition costs

Exhibition costs

Use essential conditions for display established above to determine costs, including extraordinary requirements such as: * Artist/studio involvement * Extended installation time * Rented installation equipment * Construction costs

Continuing costs

Continuing costs

  • Estimate lifetime and replaceability of physical components: are there consumable elements that must be continually replaced?
  • Understand equipment or consumables that are designated by the artist to be essential to the realization of their work: consider purchasing back-ups for future preservation.
  • Outside contractors

Proceed with acquisition?

Summarize findings and make recommendations for proceeding. Using the information gathered from the assembled team and consultants, the curator/collector determines if the art work is an appropriate acquisition for the collection. If yes, then the curator/collector identifies recommendations to incorporate into the purchase agreement.

  • Identify issues for negotiation.
  • Specify the preferred preservation and exhibition material required, e.g. master, sub-master, exhibition copy.
  • Provide a final equipment list necessary for acquisition and display: what is provided by the seller? What must be additionally purchased?

Pre-acquisition Templates


  • What rights do we need to secure as part of the acquisition of the work?
  • Do we have what we need for the future conservation and display of the work?
  • Can we make copies for exhibition and preservation?
  • Does this acquisition warrant the need for formal legal documents?

Contractual documents are required to acquire an artwork. Because of the complexities attached to the bundle of rights being conferred with the transfer of ownership of media artworks, legal documents take on a greater significance than is the case with more traditional works. These documents include a purchase agreement, or a deed of gift, and a copyright license. They specify the terms and conditions of the acquisition and help ensure that all parties understand their respective rights and obligations. The documents can be used among the following parties (which, in any given transaction, may be a museum, artist or artist’s estate, gallery or collector): purchaser, seller, donor, and copyright holder. Templates for the documents are provided here for reference purposes. Depending, of course, on the terms of each transaction, they may be used as a starting point in negotiations.


The accessioning phase lies between formally agreeing to acquire a work and actually being in a position, with everything in place, to accession a work into a collection. It is a moment when you make sure that you have everything that was agreed as part of the purchase or gift. In the case of traditional works of art, for example a painting, this is the moment when you check the painting arrived, that it is the painting you thought you were buying and that it is in the expected condition. The end of this phase is marked by legal title passing to the new owner.

There may be occasions when sculptures, paintings or other types of objects are also included as part of the work. However, for the majority of cases, what you are buying when you buy a media artwork is not a unique material object but rather the means and the rights to be able to display the work, loan it, preserve it and sell it. To be able to enact these rights you will need to be in possession of preservation master material and information about how the work is to be installed.

Notify the vendor

Once a decision has been made to acquire the work, it is important to notify the vendor or the donor of this intention as soon as possible. In some cases there may be strong competition for a particular work. It is important that the accessioning stage is completed as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Verify artwork components

During the pre-acquisition phase the buyer will have familiarized themselves with the details of the work and established what is important to its installation and conservation. Preliminary discussions will have taken place to clarify what is being offered as part of the purchase price. During this phase those elements are delivered, and the recipient will have the opportunity to check that what has been agreed has arrived and that it is in good condition. In some cases, the vendor may wait to deliver the certificate until after payment.

Secure and check preservation material

During the pre-acquisition phase, any tasks to be carried out during the accessioning phase to produce preservation material will have been identified. In some cases the vendor may supply archival material as part of the purchase. In other cases the recipient may agree to oversee the production and pay for the material needed. These discussions are best carried out as part of the initial negotiations. Once the payment is made and the acquisition completed, it can be very difficult to go back and ask for access to masters or request the rights to make copies for preservation. To help ensure that you have what you need to enable continued display of the work in the future, it is advisable to complete all archiving before the work is accessioned. It is also useful to specify any subsequent access that might be needed in a legal document such as a Purchase Agreement. If the work is being donated you may need to go back to the artist to ask for access to master material.

It is important to view the material you have received as part of the acquisition in order to check that its condition is as you expected. It is not unheard of to find problems with both media elements and any equipment provided as part of an acquisition. If equipment has been provided as part of a purchase, check what your situation is regarding the warranty.

Exchange contracts

Contractual documents are exchanged during the accessioning phase. This may be as simple as an invoice; however there are cases where it is of benefit to all parties to have more detailed contracts. These documents include a purchase agreement, or a deed of gift, and a copyright license. They specify the terms and conditions of the acquisition and help ensure that all parties understand their respective rights and obligations. The documents can be used among the following parties (which, in any given transaction, may be a museum, artist or artist’s estate, gallery or collector): purchaser, seller, donor, and copyright holder. Templates for the documents are provided for reference purposes.

Depending on the terms of each transaction, the templates will be modified and are offered here simply as a starting point in negotiations. A relationship of trust between the artist and their representatives and the new owner is important to successful custodianship. If you think that there is something controversial in the agreement, for example requests to stream the media elements online, discuss this with the artist first. Some artists may trust a museum and not worry about reading contractual documents carefully, it is therefore good practice to make sure they are aware of the content.

You are advised not to sign any agreement unless you first obtain legal advice. Sellers, Donors and Copyright Holders must bear in mind that these documents were drafted from the perspective of the Museum as Purchaser or Donee. The documents are also drafted from a generic perspective of UK and US law and should not be considered a substitute for legal counsel.

Accession Templates

In the following templates, square brackets have been used where the information contained within them is optional or subject to change according to the particular circumstances – as well as to comment on particular issues that should be addressed when tailoring this agreement. All square brackets should eventually be removed and the information within them modified or deleted before the agreement is signed. Red bold font is used where the information contained within is optional as it specifically applies to media art.

Because ownership of an artwork does not necessarily include ownership of the copyright to that artwork this document is an authorization from the Copyright Holder to the Owner of a work of art permitting the Owner to, for example, reproduce the work in publications and/or for preservation purposes. This template is an agreement between the Copyright Holder (usually the artist) and the collector (referred to as the ‘Museum’ in the document). It can be used as a general license agreement as well as a document specific to media art.

A document that memorializes the transfer of ownership of a work of art by way of gift. This template assumes a full gift between two parties. It can be adapted to situations where there is more than one Donee or if the gift is fractional.

A contract between the seller of the work of art and the purchaser that controls the terms of sale. This template can be adapted for use in situations where there is more than one purchaser (i.e. a joint acquisition sometimes referred to as a co-ownership agreement and would need to be reviewed with the relevant co-ownership agreement and relevant co-owner(s).)

Before signing the contract, you will have information in hand about the work [refer to Pre-acquisition Guidelines checklist]. You will already have considered the installation details, long-term preservation and exhibition requirements, future technological developments, as well as condition assessment. At this moment you might also wish to secure a Copyright Licence between you, the new owner of the work and the Copyright Holder. Although the artist normally retains the copyright in the work, you may want to secure rights to produce images and copies of the work for a range of purposes from publicity to preservation. Two copies of each agreement document are sent to the Seller for signature. Each party should retain one fully signed original.

Please note the following:

  • Affirmation of Title is desirable but not crucial if you have done your pre-acquisition research. You need to assess the relationship with your donor to determine whether to pursue.
  • Certificate of Authenticity: if donor is not in possession of, or cannot transfer it, you may need to obtain this document by other means, including contacting the artist, gallery or estate. In some cases there may be a charge for replacing a missing certificate.
  • Red bold font is used where artist or artist estate are the donor. If the artist is not the donor, bear in mind that you may need to obtain documents by other means as well as deleting the sections of non-relevance.


The work is catalogued and documented during this phase, and images are created for public release and for internal use. The artist may be interviewed after acquiring the work to answer remaining questions about future conservation and display. Technical and conceptual knowledge about the work is used to create a long-term conservation plan. The media, display equipment, and sculptural components are packed and stored in archival housing in favorable environments for long-term preservation.

  • What information do we need to have in place to establish a baseline record and for future record-keeping?
  • What is needed to prepare for the future life of the work as part of our Collection?
  • How do I prepare for interviewing the artist about the installation and conservation of the work?
  • The goal of the post-acquisition phase is to prepare the artwork for long-term preservation and future installation. This includes organizing information about the work in digital and hard-copy format.

Notify artist: All parties must be notified after completing the acquisition process, including the artist and vendor (or donor)

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