Private museums: a story of success

 Paris  |  25 June 2015  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

“A collection is like a start-up”, according to Sylvain Levy, a French collector of contemporary Chinese art. He believes having a strong entrepreneurial spirit is essential for anyone who wishes to be an accomplished collector. However, one can list many parallels and similarities between the cultural sector, and more specifically the world of museums, and the world of private investment. Stimulated and strongly supported by the capital that private collectors possess, private museums are now prevalent all over the world, not only in Asia and the United States, but also in Germany, where there are no less than 45 private institutions, compared to 48 in the United States. So what sets them apart? They are often characterised by avant-garde architecture, and are Pharaonic projects that stand out among their territory, such as the Fondation Louis Vuitton designed by Frank Gehry, as well as boasting enthusiastic programmes and collections, demonstrating their independence and subjectivity. In contrast to public institutions, their freedom of action and independence is guaranteed by their financial autonomy.

Traditionally, a distinction is made almost instinctively between public and private museums. In the words of collector Christian Boros, who keeps his collection in a titanic bunker constructed by the Nazi architect Albert Speer: “The purpose of a museum is linked to its historical perspective – for example, displaying masterpieces from the last decade. And then, on the other hand, you have private collections with their errors and prejudices.” Is it really necessary to oppose these different types of institution? Although they each have different aims that depend on the ways in which they are managed, it is also important to consider the mutual aims shared by public and private institutions: be it supporting artists by giving voice to contemporary creation or educating audiences, similarities do exist between them. However, it is also possible to distinguish how, and to what extent, a private museum is significantly different from a public museum.

A museum: an identity
The extremely strong buying power of private collectors seems to give them the means to boast brilliant collections, especially in a sector such as that of contemporary art, where speculation is rife and the value of artists is constantly increasing. Such a phenomenon tends to quite unequally divide up works: it means that in private collections there will be works that everyone fights over, such as those by Jeff Koons or Twonbly, which are above all characterised by the fact that they are produced in the form of series. One can imagine that a certain diversity can be observed between one private collection and another, nevertheless altering slightly due to the fact that collectors often opt for contemporary artists of their own nationality. Although public institutions sometimes see such works escape them, they are still able to acquire major pieces of modern or older art, and take advantage of donations from collectors, or indeed even from contemporary artists. This is definitely an advantage of the interdisciplinary mission of a large number of public institutions, such as the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam or the Tate Britain, whose collections encompass a whole chronological period from 1500 until the present day. Within these differing institutions, whose differences are becoming increasingly more complicated, museums founded by artists are a completely different type all together, and a set of collected works comprises one large work that corresponds to whatever the artist’s intentions may be.

This quick overview allows us to assess the prolific nature of the contemporary museum world. It also gives the outline of a shifting universe, where an artist can both have their works collected and be a collector, and where interests are not limited to a unique perspective led by the private or public status of an institution. Furthermore, as soon as an institution assumes the title of “museum”, the institutions are all united by a common mission: to diffuse and present their collections to the public for their education as well as for their enjoyment.

Educating the public
However, this mission of diffusing contemporary creation cannot be, or is yet to be, a concern of the State in many emerging countries. In this case, it is contemporary collectors who are in charge of sharing their enthusiasm with the public, whilst also trying to develop the local and international renown of the artists that they represent. It is therefore an issue of philanthropy, no doubt combined with other more mundane preoccupations, such as taxation. In Europe and the United States, collectors benefit from financial deductions by presenting their collections to the public in non-profit foundations. Access to these institutions is free in some cases, such as at the Getty in Los Angeles, but can be quite expensive for other foundations.

However, the border between the private dimension of these collections and the public sphere is sometimes blurred. Historically speaking, many of the international public collections of today used to be private. For example, Nancy Spector herself described the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as “a public collection based upon a private collection”. Furthermore, some private institutions often benefit from public subsidies. It is also the case that public institutions are often searching for patrons or private partnerships, especially in cases when the State detaches itself by reducing its subsidies, particularly for more stable institutions such as the Louvre, the Quai Branly museum, or the Centre Pompidou. To fund their operating costs, public museums need to develop their additional activities, which are not directly linked to their cultural mission, but which can be more lucrative. Because of this, they try to rent spaces, and create or expand boutiques or places of restoration. Although visits are essential for private institutions, this is also becoming increasingly more important for their public counterparts.

A world modelled on the fair
The guiding principal of private institutions – which public museums are increasingly called to imitate – seems to be the following: to make each visit an event, where the visitor is central and must be won over. This is summarised by Bruno Monnier, president and founder of the company Culturespaces and the Culturespaces Foundation, who manages some fifteen sites in France conceded by public institutions: “Our policy is: to welcome the visitor as a guest, and to introduce a human and emotional dimension in the site’s history, alongside scientific discourse expressed in an accessible vocabulary. We also have the desire to construct exhibitions without losing money”. The visitor is invited to the spectacle, which resembles a celebratory event, where the meaning of the speeches given by the curator or artists, is eclipsed by the pursuit of fun and the spectacular. It is up to the curators to define their limits. Whatever it may be, if we observe the colossal and deconstructed appearance of the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, we must face the facts: the spectacular is already well established in the world of museums, both public and private.

Yet, fifteen years ago, fairs themselves took the museum as a model and tried to adopt their policies in terms of quality and cultural ambition. With a number of handpicked exhibitors and numerous solo exhibitions allowing the in-depth discovery of the artists’ worlds, fairs such as Art Basel have positioned themselves as “the greatest museum in the world”, in the words of gallerist Pierre Huber, who served on the fair committee in the 1990s. A great museum, certainly, but for a profit. From then on, art dealers and museums became inextricably linked. Indeed, museums had no other option but to adapt to this evolution. Far from closing their doors to private collectors, institutions even place some of them on their boards of directors.

Competition, emulation, cooperation?
Thus, according to the report published by Larry’s List, Art Collector Report 2014, 37% of major collectors are already active in one or more public museums. This commitment is not without serving their personal projects, as it allows them to acquire the most popular works of art. Indeed, public galleries prioritise collectors when it comes to exhibiting works. Furthermore, presenting their works in an institution and participating in its scientific project allows collectors to increase their value from a critical, symbolic, and commercial point of view. In short, it guarantees them greater legitimacy. As for museums, in theory, they have a lot to gain – and even expect – to develop trusting relationships with collectors. As the Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann, outlines, “when you own a private collection, you must be generous […] What interests me is launching a public discussion around these works”. Hoffmann is certainly proactive. The issues she highlights and the projects she implements, thanks to the powerful tool of the LUMA Foundation, whose pharaonic cultural complex, LUMA Arles, fully self-financed – to the tune of €150 million – is the perfect example, are emblematic of the cultural renewal that allows cooperation between private and public stakeholders. However, in such a configuration, Hoffmann is the driving force behind the project, while public institutions, represented by figures such as Daniel Birnbaum, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, are invited collaborators.

Flexibility and audacity therefore characterise these private companies, which, as we have repeatedly seen, intend to benefit a communities which are both local, in the case of Arles for example, and global. Fairs also seize the opportunities brought about by this great movement of the organisation and development of networks connecting the various private players. The London fair Art15 – which took place from 21 until 23 May 2015 – this year pulled out of overseeing the official founding of the Global Private Museum Association. At the instigation of Philip Dodd, president of the fair’s advisory committee, such a venture guaranteed the arrival of customers with high purchasing power. Indeed, a little less than thirty private museums owners, from Elgiz in Istanbul and Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, to Wang Wei and Budi Tek in Shanghai and Jakarta, responded to the call. This dialogue has laid the foundations for a new relationship of mutual assistance and exchange between new private museums in emerging countries, be it advice in terms of curatorial expertise, works, or artists residences at various institutions. In addition to philanthropic and educative projects, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, who runs the eponymous foundation based in Turin, has, for example, offered to share orders for video and digital works, since they can be easily disseminated and shared.

Such initiatives indicate a promising future for private museums. For Kate Bryan, artistic director of Art15, collectors that sit at the head of such institutions are the “Fricks and the Guggenheims of the future” – people with an extraordinary buying power who are changing the artistic landscape of the 21st century by creating their own private museums. Although limited by budgetary constraints and by educational and collective memory missions, which are not necessarily shared by private museums, public institutions remain extremely important purchasing advisors and are recognised as essential partners by private stakeholders. In a landscape undergoing reconfiguration, adaptation is the necessary, but it is by no means synonymous with a separation of private and public institutions.
A world modelled on the fair
The guiding principal of private institutions – which public museums are increasingly called to imitate – seems to be the following: to make each visit an event, where the visitor is central and must be won over. This is summarised by Bruno Monnier, president and founder of the company Culturespaces and the Culturespaces Foundation, who manages some fifteen sites in France conceded by public institutions: “Our policy is: to welcome the visitor as a guest, and to introduce a human and emotional dimension in the site’s history, alongside scientific discourse expressed in an accessible vocabulary. We also have the desire to construct exhibitions without losing money”. The visitor is invited to the spectacle, which resembles a celebratory event, where the meaning of the speeches given by the curator or artists, is eclipsed by the pursuit of fun and the spectacular. It is up to the curators to define their limits. Whatever it may be, if we observe the colossal and deconstructed appearance of the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, we must face the facts: the spectacular is already well established in the world of museums, both public and private.

Yet, fifteen years ago, fairs themselves took the museum as a model and tried to adopt their policies in terms of quality and cultural ambition. With a number of handpicked exhibitors and numerous solo exhibitions allowing the in-depth discovery of the artists’ worlds, fairs such as Art Basel have positioned themselves as “the greatest museum in the world”, in the words of gallerist Pierre Huber, who served on the fair committee in the 1990s. A great museum, certainly, but for a profit. From then on, art dealers and museums became inextricably linked. Indeed, museums had no other option but to adapt to this evolution. Far from closing their doors to private collectors, institutions even place some of them on their boards of directors.

Competition, emulation, cooperation?
Thus, according to the report published by Larry’s List, Art Collector Report 2014, 37% of major collectors are already active in one or more public museums. This commitment is not without serving their personal projects, as it allows them to acquire the most popular works of art. Indeed, public galleries prioritise collectors when it comes to exhibiting works. Furthermore, presenting their works in an institution and participating in its scientific project allows collectors to increase their value from a critical, symbolic, and commercial point of view. In short, it guarantees them greater legitimacy. As for museums, in theory, they have a lot to gain – and even expect – to develop trusting relationships with collectors. As the Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann, outlines, “when you own a private collection, you must be generous […] What interests me is launching a public discussion around these works”. Hoffmann is certainly proactive. The issues she highlights and the projects she implements, thanks to the powerful tool of the LUMA Foundation, whose pharaonic cultural complex, LUMA Arles, fully self-financed – to the tune of €150 million – is the perfect example, are emblematic of the cultural renewal that allows cooperation between private and public stakeholders. However, in such a configuration, Hoffmann is the driving force behind the project, while public institutions, represented by figures such as Daniel Birnbaum, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, are invited collaborators.

Flexibility and audacity therefore characterise these private companies, which, as we have repeatedly seen, intend to benefit a communities which are both local, in the case of Arles for example, and global. Fairs also seize the opportunities brought about by this great movement of the organisation and development of networks connecting the various private players. The London fair Art15 – which took place from 21 until 23 May 2015 – this year pulled out of overseeing the official founding of the Global Private Museum Association. At the instigation of Philip Dodd, president of the fair’s advisory committee, such a venture guaranteed the arrival of customers with high purchasing power. Indeed, a little less than thirty private museums owners, from Elgiz in Istanbul and Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, to Wang Wei and Budi Tek in Shanghai and Jakarta, responded to the call. This dialogue has laid the foundations for a new relationship of mutual assistance and exchange between new private museums in emerging countries, be it advice in terms of curatorial expertise, works, or artists residences at various institutions. In addition to philanthropic and educative projects, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, who runs the eponymous foundation based in Turin, has, for example, offered to share orders for video and digital works, since they can be easily disseminated and shared.

Such initiatives indicate a promising future for private museums. For Kate Bryan, artistic director of Art15, collectors that sit at the head of such institutions are the “Fricks and the Guggenheims of the future” – people with an extraordinary buying power who are changing the artistic landscape of the 21st century by creating their own private museums. Although limited by budgetary constraints and by educational and collective memory missions, which are not necessarily shared by private museums, public institutions remain extremely important purchasing advisors and are recognised as essential partners by private stakeholders. In a landscape undergoing reconfiguration, adaptation is the necessary, but it is by no means synonymous with a separation of private and public institutions.

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