I’m still digesting Wednesday’s NYT special section on museums, especially “Immortality, or a Museum of One’s Own,” in which Geraldine Fabrikant explored the trend of collectors building private museums for their treasure troves. Despite the massive fortunes funding them, the article underlines, there’s a certain financial precariousness to such institutions:
Small or large, [private museums] are costly, and it is not clear how many will survive once the people who started them are gone. The yearly budget for Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in Manhattan was $9 million in 2006… In that same year, the museum brought in $5 million.
The Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, a haven for the Himalayan art collected by Donald and Shelley Rubin, had a budget of $12 million last year and received about $6 million from sources that included admissions, donations and dues…. Mr. Rubin has created a $75 million endowment for the museum, but he is realistic about its long-term odds. “We have some money and we are doing great shows,” he said. “We have 5,000 members, but the bottom line is that the public has to come to the aid of museums.”
This is where it gets a little strange for me. Because when Rubin talks about “the public” coming to his museum’s aid despite the $75M endowment, what that suggests to me is that money will have to come from donors great and small, and perhaps even the local government. In that sense, the founding of private museums often functions as a sort of incredibly expensive trial balloon, floated out into the cultural sphere to see whether that collector’s taste enjoys broader support or fails to find traction.
There’s another angle to this question, which is whether the surge in private museums is a good or bad thing for the artworld in general, as opposed to the collectors in particular. The case for such institutions benefiting the artworld is pretty clear: More works by more artists are publicly available, sometimes in places that lack any major museums. And some of these institutions are amazing. Nearby to me, Basel alone has two gems: the Fondation Beyeler, whose Warhol and Rothko surveys redefined the artists for me; and the Schaulager, whose Jeff Wall retrospective remains perhaps the single best marriage of artist and venue that I have ever seen.
Yet every time I think about this trend, I recall a conversation I had roughly six years ago with Basel dealer extraordinaire Ernst Beyeler, while sitting in the lobby of his Renzo Piano-designed foundation. At the time there was a trend of European collectors announcing they were starting their own museums. Beyeler made the point that while many of these private collections contain a few masterpieces, a lot of the material involved isn’t “museum-quality.” Granted, that’s a subjective standard, but it’s true that most collectors rate their holdings much higher than might art historians or even the general public. Which means that visitors to many private museums tend to be underwhelmed.
Another major downside is the cost of building those museums, even if the endowment to maintain them afterward is firmly in place. Because the fact is that when an art collector becomes a museum builder, millions (even tens of millions of dollars) that would have been spent on art instead get diverted toward architects, real-estate companies and construction outfits. (Not to mention the endowments.)
Likewise, in a time when many collectors have greater buying power than all but the best-funded museums – and often are quicker to spot the talents of significant artists – one cannot underestimate the value those holdings could have had in reinforcing the collections of public institutions, which often have huge gaps in their contemporary sections.
Notwithstanding all of the above, I’m still torn on this issue, especially once I factor in the fact that so many of the great public museums were founded as private collections. And there’s no one right answer. What’s more interesting to think about is this: “What questions should a collector pose themselves in deciding whether or not to build a private museum?”