PRINT Summer 2010

Jeffrey Kastner

Interior of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s suite at the Plaza Hotel, New York, ca. 1937. Photo: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

ON A RECENT DAY IN EARLY MAY, two e-mails showed up in my in-box within a few hours of each other. The information they individually contained was unremarkable—the opening of an exhibition and the gift of artworks to a museum. Taken together, however, they provide a glimpse into one intriguingly unsettled facet of today’s contemporary art world: the complex landscape shared, sometimes uneasily, by private art collectors and public art institutions.

The first e-mail concerned an opening at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, an apple barn–turned–personal museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. A few weeks earlier, I had met there with its patron, Peter Brant, as he prepared to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the center by having Urs Fischer punch a massive hole in its gorgeous polished-concrete floor. Fischer is the solo subject of the second show to be mounted by the center, which was designed by architect Richard Gluckman and debuted in 2009 with ninety-eight hundred square feet of gallery and library space. Free and open to the public by appointment, the center is, Brant explained, something of a lifelong dream for the sixty-three-year-old collector, who as a child liked to imagine what it would be like to live “on top of a museum” and ended up with the next best thing: one essentially across the street from his house.

The second piece of news came from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, announcing that the heiress and philanthropist Emily Fisher Landau had decided to donate more than 350 artworks from her highly regarded collection of modern and contemporary art to the museum. Landau, the eighty-nine-year-old widow of real estate magnate Martin Fisher and clothing manufacturer Sheldon Landau, started her collection almost half a century ago. (She also has her own display space, free and open to the public, in a renovated factory in Long Island City, New York, where fifteen hundred works have been on view since 1991.) As the New York Times put it, the gift arrived at an “interesting” moment, as the museum’s board has been embroiled in a reportedly contentious debate over the wisdom of embarking on a nearly seven-hundred-million-dollar project to construct a second building along the High Line in Manhattan.

Board politics and New York City real estate intrigue notwithstanding, a gift like Landau’s, valued at between fifty and seventy-five million dollars, presents the Whitney with an exceptional opportunity to enlarge its collection for free with works from a longtime friend and supporter. Such largesse is clearly the stuff of which institutional dreams are made, just as a museum of one’s own would seem to represent the ultimate public apotheosis of a private collector’s activities. What is less clear is whether these two dreams—and the conceptions of “publicness” at which each gestures—are compatible or instead must inevitably tend, in the long run, toward mutual exclusivity.

FROM THE FIRST PUBLIC ART MUSEUM IN THE US, the Wadsworth Atheneum, which opened in Hartford in 1844 to display the collection of Daniel Wadsworth, to Solomon R. Guggenheim’s nascent “museum” in his suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York, to the Whitney Museum—which Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney famously founded after New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art declined to accept a proposed gift of five hundred works from her personal collection—any number of today’s leading art institutions began their lives as private collections. Some, like Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum (which started out in 1954 in a Malibu ranch house), have grown over the decades into enormous and powerful institutions that bear little resemblance to their early forms. Others, like the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia, have remained remarkably untouched by the years (if not by controversy and changing museological times).

If history provides ready precedents for the general idea of the private museum, today’s collector-initiated institutions are nevertheless distinct products of their time. Of course, even the most conventionally public cultural institutions have always been indebted to private resources, channeled through the activities of the wealthy individuals who sustain them via boards and the like. Yet ever more nuanced intersections between public and private within the museum space—complex support structures that include federal, state, and city entities; all kinds of public and private foundations; individuals fund-raising in various ways (and being duly honored with named galleries, curatorships, and directorships); and dizzyingly diverse models for various forms of gifts and loans—have had concomitant effects outside the museum as well, as sophisticated collectors use increasingly canny and considered approaches to pick and choose from the smorgasbord of patronage options. With dramatic increases in the liquidity and reach of private capital (especially when measured against public coffers) and the continuing drumbeat of neoliberal economic arguments about the relative roles of state versus nonstate actors in the development of institutions traditionally understood to be civic responsibilities, the current generation of collectors has ridden the leading edge of certain paradigm shifts. Not least of these is the idea that civic participation in culture need not begin and end with time-honored board relationships and donation schemes, but instead can be built around new kinds of quasi-civic entities that serve some of the same purposes (if not in the same ways) that conventional museums do.

Interior of the Fisher Landau Center for Art, Long Island City, New York, 2005. Left: Andy Warhol, Portrait of Emily Fisher Landau, 1984.

They may also do so in unexpected places. Not surprisingly, a number of collectors’ museums, both large and small, cluster along the East Coast corridor—Brant’s in suburban Connecticut; the Kreeger Museum in Washington, DC, and Mitchell Rales’s Glenstone just outside it—or in other major cities like Dallas (which hosts Howard and Cindy Rachofsky’s Rachofsky House as well as the late Raymond Nasher’s Nasher Sculpture Center). But because the private museum is just as likely to be built where the collectors themselves are located as in or near any particular population center (which is, of course, in the very nature of a “public” institution), they can pop up almost anywhere: from Vail, Colorado (where investor Kent Logan and his wife, Vicki, built a seven-thousand-square-foot gallery next to their home), to Bentonville, Arkansas, where one of America’s wealthiest women, Alice Walton, is planning to house her collection within the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a hundred-thousand-square-foot complex set on a hundred-acre campus. Each has its own operating model and mission: more or less educational, more or less curated, more—or less—public (indeed, many such museums, among them Brant, Glenstone, Kreeger, and Rachofsky, generally require advance appointments or offer only guided tours; visitors to Glenstone are additionally asked not to write in any public way about their experience there).

And it’s far from an American phenomenon: The Saatchi Gallery in London has been a showcase for the collecting-as-investment mode of its patron, Charles Saatchi, since the mid-1980s, while Germany has a wide range of collector-initiated institutions, ranging from Frieder Burda’s museum in Baden-Baden and the Munich home of Udo and Anette Brandhorst’s collection to the complex (and often fraught) public-private loan models that govern the disposition of the collections of Friedrich Christian Flick, Erich Marx, and Egidio Marzona at Berlin’s Hamburger Banhof. Frustrated with the slow pace of his attempts to build a museum in a former Renault factory on the Île Seguin near Paris, French luxury-goods magnate François Pinault decamped in 2005 for Venice, where he took over the Palazzo Grassi (and, later, the Punta della Dogana) to house his collection. Elsewhere in the world, one need only follow the money to find the private museums in places ranging from Brazil (where mining tycoon Bernardo Paz opened his Inhotim in the tropical countryside in 2005) to Mexico (where the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim Helú, is currently building a new home in the capital for the Museo Soumaya, which hosts his holdings of more than sixty thousand objects); from Japan (Minoru Mori’s Mori Art Museum in Tokyo) to India (Lekha and Anupam Poddar’s Devi Art Foundation outside New Delhi) to China, where both Beijing’s Today Art Museum and Shanghai’s Zendai Museum of Modern Art (now the Himalayas Art Museum, slated to open in a new building in 2011; the original building is currently repurposed as an “art supermarket”) are private museums founded by real estate developers.

Within this geographic diversity, the city perhaps most closely associated with the private collector museum is Miami—a city rife with available real estate, wealthy full- and part-time residents, and traditionally underperforming public institutions. Here, major collectors including Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, and Martin Z. Margulies all have personal museums, with real estate developer Craig Robins slated to join them in 2012. And presiding over the scene is the Rubell Family Collection, which started the local trend when it opened to the public in a former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse in 1994 to showcase the collection of Mera and Don Rubell. The Rubells, who began collecting in the mid-1960s, were among the first of their generation of collectors to make the transition from private activity to public venue. “There was no American model,” Don Rubell told me as we sat in the library of the collection’s space in late April. “The closest model at that time I would have to say was Schaffhausen,” the Swiss space opened in the early ’80s that houses work from the collection of Urs and Christel Raussmüller. But the decision to open a public space for the family collection was not the Rubells’ first impulse. “I graduated from Cornell University,” Rubell recounted, “and in a burst of allegiance I visited the [Herbert F.] Johnson Museum [of Art] and the director there, and I said that anytime we buy a piece for ourselves I’d buy another piece for you and just give it to you. And he said, ‘Well, we have enough junk in our storage.” Rubell laughed. “And then we joined the board of Dia [Center for the Arts]—we were very good friends with all the curators at Dia—and from the day we joined the board we never spoke to anyone. So we realized that it was more fun to be an independent operator.”

View of Urs Fischer, “Oscar the Grouch,” 2010, Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Greenwich, Connecticut. Foreground: Untitled (Hole), 2007. Background, left: Untitled (Standing), 2010. Wallpaper: Abstract Slavery, 2008.

And the more the merrier, it seems—in April, the Rubells announced their intention to open a second museum for their collection in Washington, DC, as part of a multiuse hotel and apartment complex, on a parcel of land currently owned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. This confluence of museum building and real estate speculation is hardly unique—both Today and the future home of the Himalayas Art Museum are located within luxury residential complexes owned by their patrons, while Slim’s Museo Soumaya, scheduled to open this year, is also part of an office-residential complex. The marriage of the private art museum to a wider commercial/entertainment context should be no surprise, given the reimagining traditionally staid public institutions have undergone over the past several decades, with the introduction of everything from expanded gift shops and increased Web presence to high-concept bars and restaurants, all designed to increase the “stickiness” of audience visits. It is, in many ways, the upshot of the evolving argument that the institution as a site of study and patrimonial preservation is not exclusive from—but instead might actually have to become reliant on—new ways of “commercializing” the museum and linking it with other kinds of cultural and consumer activities.

The potential for such synergy today provides a powerful financial incentive for some collectors to manage their private collections as quasi-public enterprises. Also attractive are the benefits they receive from the tax-exempt-foundation model that most choose for their museums. (This has become even more vivid in the wake of the 2006 legislation that changed the way in which fractional gifts to institutions are treated for tax purposes—new regulations that created a scenario in which, as Michael Conforti, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, told the Wall Street Journal last year, such donations “virtually dried up.” A bill designed to reinstate the tax advantages of fractional giving was introduced by New York Senator Charles Schumer in late 2009 but remains in committee.) Moreover, Barbara Hoffman, a veteran art-world attorney and former chair of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York’s Art Law Committee, explains that the financial benefits for collectors in the private-museum model potentially extend beyond their lifetimes. “For many collectors, an advantage of setting up these private museums can be the fact that they have a way of seeing that these entities are moving forward in a structured way after their deaths,” Hoffman says—without the estate facing enormous tax bills, for example, or leaving potentially uninterested or unwilling descendants the responsibility of dealing with them. While some collectors have quite consciously involved their heirs in the operation of their museums, ensuring continuity after a single dominant patron is no longer active remains a major challenge for private institutions.

A desire to access the administrative structures of the conventional museum while retaining some measure of private control has produced some curious hybrid models, perhaps none so complex as that of Eli Broad’s Broad Art Foundation in Los Angeles. At the time of this writing, negotiations were in their final stages for the selection of a new site for the foundation, designed both to be a replacement for a twenty-two-year-old Santa Monica headquarters it has long since outgrown and to be the foundation’s own art museum. The choice—which, according to foundation director Joanne Heyler, had by early May come down to either a location at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium or a site on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles—has for months been the subject of enormous speculation in the media, particularly since the entire enterprise is widely understood as a sort of endgame for a long-running drama between the billionaire and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened the Broad Contemporary Art Museum just a little more than two years ago. (Broad is also, of course, founding chairman and a life trustee of the Los Angeles Musuem of Contemporary Art, which he personally bailed out to the tune of thirty million dollars at the end of 2008, giving him a unique level of individual sway in an ostensibly board-governed institution.)

Initially assumed by many to be a prelude to an outright gift to LACMA of some substantial portion of Broad’s wide-ranging collection of contemporary art, he and his wife Edythe’s donation of more than sixty million dollars toward the construction of a Renzo Piano–designed building on the LACMA campus instead initiated a series of often-public disagreements. These were set in motion when Broad decided to loan, rather than give, the museum a portion of his collection: The installation of these and other works in the BCAM building apparently dissatisfied Broad, who, according to LACMA board members cited in a New York Times article from this past February, then withheld the balance of his pledge. (In the same article, Broad asserted that he had fulfilled his “gift to LACMA 100-plus percent” and questioned, in response, whether the museum had “honored their commitments” to him by showing his collection as promised.)

Exterior of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, Los Angeles, 2008. Photo: Weldon Brewster.

Heyler acknowledges that “BCAM hasn’t wound up being what the Broads envisioned when they decided to make this gift to the museum,” and that Eli Broad’s candor about his frustration has fueled a perception “that this is the main or entire reason why we’re now contemplating and are proceeding to make plans to build our own museum.” But, she says, “even before BCAM opened we were thinking about how to deal with the long-range future of the Broad Art Foundation both in terms of mission and, on a very practical level, caring for the artworks—we currently have artworks spread out across four different storage locations. And so we talked about how to deal with the long-term future.”

If the complicated relationship between Broad and the LA contemporary art world makes the situation there an unreliable case study, it’s hardly a stretch to find some cautionary tale in it. The attempt by private collectors to forge official relationships between their museums and existing civic institutions is clearly fraught. Yet for these private institutions, forming intra-institutional allegiances—beyond the often quite active lending programs that many of them pursue—would seem to be an important goal as they develop into increasingly powerful players in a museum world whose professional codes and organizations they, for the most part, don’t participate in. One potential model for such coordination is FACE, the Foundation of Arts for a Contemporary Europe, a two-year-old consortium of five nonprofit, collector-initiated foundations: the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy; the Ellipse Foundation, whose patron, João Oliveira-Rendeiro, is based in Cascais, near Lisbon; La Maison Rouge, Fondation Antoine de Galbert in Paris; Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, founded by investor Robert Weil and director David Neuman in 1987; and Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Dakis Joannou’s Athens-based foundation and presentation space. (Joannou, of course, has encountered his own set of complications in his relationships with public institutions, as anyone who followed the contretemps over the New Museum in New York’s “Skin Fruit” exhibition this spring will no doubt recall.) According to its website, FACE seeks to develop (what to American collectors might seem particularly European) models of collaboration, on everything from programming to publications to public relations. It is, in many ways, the inevitable next step in the process of professionalization that attends the development of any institutional model, no matter how personal the initial impulse behind it.

THIS YEAR MARKS THE SEVENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY of two distinguished but very different institutions. In New York, the Frick Collection—one of the finest assemblages of European masterpieces in the US—is, as it has been from its beginnings, housed in the extravagant Fifth Avenue home of its patron, Henry Clay Frick, drawing visitors with its extraordinary collections and potent Gilded Age opulence. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is celebrating its own “diamond” anniversary. Its centerpiece will be the Fisher Collection, some eleven hundred artworks donated to the museum by Doris and the late Donald Fisher, the founder of the Gap, after Fisher’s plan for his own private museum in the city’s Presidio was scuppered by local opposition.

In early May, the museum announced a short list of architects who will compete to design an almost $250 million expansion, tripling the institution’s exhibition and public spaces in order to show the Fisher work both on its own and integrated into the collection at large. One private collection that became public without ever leaving home, another that only became public because it did—two different paths, but the same destination. Or is it? Don Rubell told me that, in the end, “everything ends up in the museum.” But looking at a deal like the one struck between the Fishers and SF MoMA, it’s not entirely clear if the collection is ending up in the museum or the other way around. Whether or not there’s a meaningful difference between these two states of affairs remains to be seen.

Jeffrey Kastner is a frequent contributor to Artforum.