More private museums: Good or bad? Yes.

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?”

4 thoughts on “More private museums: Good or bad? Yes.”

  1. I think by “public” Don Rubin actually means the private sphere, ie the broader public that would eventually support the museum’s programming with donations and tickets. You’d have to be a fool to hope for public funding in NYC, where only a few museums receive any significant taxpayer support. However, this type of ploy is routine in Europe, where enterepreneurial types (and old families) routinely look to the state to pick up the pieces when their funds dry up. (For an examples of such boondoggles, see my New York Times from a few years back on some ill-fated museum initiatives in Budapest.)

    Cultural institutions do usually start (in America) as private initiatives. The question you correctly raise is to what extent do these private ventures have a plan from the get-go to take them public, as it were, i.e. to broaden their support base once they’re up and running and the founder is getting ready to move on?

    I disagree about your point that the new facilities take money away from acquisitions. The folks who build these types of museums are already very active in acquiring works and not short of resources; it’s not a zero-sum for them. The historical record shows that once private money builds these museums — from the Rockefeller MoMA to the Whitney and the Guggenheim and the Mellon benefactions to the National Gallery, etc. — other patrons end up donating their collections to them. The building can be an incentive to collect and give, not a deterrent. I think this is especially true for the kind of specialized museums, like the Neue and the Rubin, which provide a venue for collectors with specialized interests.

    Only time will tell whether a museum will be considered by posterity as one person’s folly, or if it is embraced by “the public” (foundations, board members, paying visitors, and possibly government) to ensure long-term sustainability.

    That said, museums like the Rubin or the Neue already receive an indirect taxpayer subsidy — by virtue of their nonprofit status. The state has determined that the institution is providing a public service that merits exemptions from all sorts of taxes. That’s probably as much public largesse as these private institutions can expect.

  2. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on the zero-sumness of the equation here. I acknowledge that it’s not strictly zero-sum; but the money does have to come from somewhere, and I think a parcel of that somewhere is what would have been the art-buying budget.

    Also, I’ve never been in the Rubin collection, but unless I’ve forgotten something, the Neue Galerie can barely hold Lauder’s art, let alone that of any future donors.

    Finally, one issue that we haven’t really not touched on so far is the extent to which these museums can validate works from those collections in the marketplace, either through private sale or at auction. Given that they’re tax-payer-subsidized institutions, that’s one usage that seems like it should be off-limits. So I’ll start to answer my request for the questions a collector should ask themselves with this one: “Am I really ready to stop treating my collection as personal property?”

  3. Private museums allow one to gain some insight into the psyche of the original collector (or his or her advisers…) no matter what the quality is. And for that reason I enjoy them. On the other hand there is no denying that more buildings means more places to display what little great work there is, meaning fewer really great concentrations of anyone’s oeuvre or any one period. For that reason it might be preferable for a few great collections to be created to which different patrons might contribute wonderful pieces so that we might see a truly wonderful collection in one place. But as both Marc and Andras have inferred, the ego of the collector might not be willing to face possible rejection by such an institution, or the dissolution of a lifetime’s collecting. So the creation of more private museums, some with mediocre collections, seems likely as long as the wealth is being created. As for Marc’s original question, I would ask myself: “Do I really believe my collection is strong enough to warrant its own public building?” Because if it isn’t, people will eventually stop going for curiosity’s sake and the Museum will always be a drain on whatever finance is put in place.

  4. This conversation reminds me of the dilemmas we now see with private foundations. On the one hand, as vehicles for the interests of a living donor, foundations can be completely arbitrary, or refreshingly brave. Which is it? I guess that depends on the donor. Foundations with dead donors, by contrast, tend to be stifled by bureaucracy, they are often slow, obsessively self-conscious, and driven by agendas that are completerly divorced from reality; or they can be committed and consistent in their pursuit of causes in ways that donor-driven foundations often aren’t.

    Surely these tradeoffs apply to museums. I still think that the face-off between private museums vs. “public” museums (which, of course, in America are also private) is a bit of a red herring. For one thing, the new private museums are still a tiny blip on the vast international museum infrastructure. Second, we have no way of knowing how many of them will stick. My guess is that half will be either closed or absorbed into larger museums or other cultural entities within a decade or two after their founder’s death. Nothing wrong with that. The other half will mature into self-sustaining, critically established museums. A little Darwinianism goes a long way.

    The most important question is the one that we simply cannot answer yet. Will the eye of the new collectors prove to have been prescient? Yet, even if the collections are seen as important by future generations, their organizational fate may diverge. Just compare the museums that grew out of earlier waves of wealth creation — Frick, Gardner, Barnes, to name three very different situations — and you can see that the issue is not whether these museums are private at the outset, but whether their future stewardship is competent.

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