Are single-donor museums the solution to private giving of art?

By Maria Thomas on

Recent articles from the American publication Inside Philanthropy show a growth in single-donor private museums in the US. Whilst art collection-come-museums are nothing new, it is surprising to read that 80% of all single-donor museums were created in the 21st century.

This change from the old partnerships between donors and private collectors with public museums can partly be explained by the increasing number of wealthy individuals in America who can invest in high-end works of art. Rather than gifting to established institutions like MoMA and LACMA, such collectors are housing their works in private museums. Their decisions for this vary – from wanting a space to hold their own collection on permanent display, to taking an active role in collecting for the long-term.

This model has a number of advantages, it helps to keep work in the public domain, rather than with investors, and covers some of a museum’s costs in purchasing new art works. There are a number of reasons for supporting this model including:

  • Access to more Art– Setting up a private museum is more desirable for art enthusiasts and the general public alike and prevents works being hidden from view by private investors.
  • Supporting museums – This may not be a hard sell for Collectors as they are already investing in Art, and therefore more than likely interested in supporting the cause.
  • Diversify the collection – Private collectors can be choosier about what they invest in but this may be a good thing. Personal collections might have more idiosyncratic content, which can lead to more varied and unusual art works, especially from emerging artists who are rarely seen.
  • Financial Investment – This sort of financial support results in investment in a richer portfolio of artworks for visitors and audiences to enjoy. Increasingly philanthropists want to invest directly in the art, not to feel like they are only funding to keep the lights on.

There are examples of this type of model already in the UK, most well-known being the Saatchi Gallery, but generally not on the scale of that seen in America. And it isn’t only for private museums, public museums can also develop special agreements with private collectors for investment and for supporting future collections.

For instance, The Artist Rooms partnership between Anthony d’Offay, with Tate and National Galleries of Scotland has been running since 2008. In exchange for his collection of more than 700 works, the museums have agreed to programme displays exploring particular individual artists. To support this, d’Offay has purchased specific artworks to feature in these exhibitions.

Another example is Going Public in Sheffield, which launched in 2015. Art consultant Sebastien Montabonel and Mark Doyle bring influential collectors and public funded galleries together to display works from their collections and develop new ways of collaborating.

“At the moment, there is a lack of confidence in how long some of our public museums are going to last and I think that is why we have more and more private museums popping up every day!” Sebastien Montabonel

The museums that can benefit most from these arrangements are likely to be smaller or in non-metropolitan centres where purchasing artworks for museums are harder to fund.  It is also only likely to succeed if collectors and museums work together collaboratively about holding and co-owning expensive works, and where clear agreements are set out from the start. This should cover what would happen if the private collector decided to sell, or the intentions of either party changed. Having frank discussions from the beginning will allow for continued investment without either side losing out.

As the increasing wealth gap between rich and poor looks set to continue, then this model of philanthropic funding for art could become a more attractive proposition. If museums can embrace private collectors and be innovative in working with them, then it will undoubtedly have a positive impact on audiences, collectors and the museum sector as a whole.

Read Inside Philanthropy Because They Can: On the Rise of Single-Donor Private Museums and Shifts in Art Giving

Posted by Maria Thomas

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