Art and Soul: The Rise of Private Museums

Art and Soul: The Rise of Private Museums

While art collectors continue to amass valuable and culturally important collections, there’s been a huge rise in the number of private museums opening their doors, particularly in countries where the state museum system is faltering. While this exposes the public to more first-class art than ever, some critics deem them little more than vanity projects.

"Buy art, build a museum, put your name on it…That’s as close as you can get to immortality,” the British artist Damien Hirst once said. Last year the artist spent US$37.9 million [HK$294 million] redeveloping London’s Newport Street Gallery, a space that he will use to showcase the more than 3,000 pieces in his own art collection, including works by Francis Bacon, Picasso, Warhol and Koons. For Hirst this dictum seems to apply even if your creative output has already guaranteed you a spot in the art history books.

As artist-turned-privategallerist, Hirst is unique in the growing league of private museum founders – most made their fortunes through other means. But as a living artist able to fund his own gallery, Hirst’s case is revealing about the financialisation of contemporary art and its effect on a museum landscape increasingly populated by private institutions. The Broad in Los Angeles, the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing and Museum Voorlinden in The Hague are all privately funded institutions that have opened their doors within the last few years, and more are on the way.

Cape Town will soon be home to the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which is funded by Jochen Zetiz, ex-CEO of Puma, who holds the leading collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. And J Tomilson Hill, the billionaire vice chairman at Blackstone Group, has announced plans to open a private museum in a two-story space on West 24th Street in Manhattan.  Opening in the autumn of 2017, the gallery will draw largely from his personal collection, which is valued at more than US$800 million.

Damien Hirst's collection of contemporary art, such as this Jeff Koons piece, will be displayed at his Newport Street Gallery Museum.

Damien Hirst's collection of contemporary art, such as this Jeff Koons piece, will be displayed at his Newport Street Gallery Museum.

According to the Private Art Museum Report released by Larry’s List, over 70 percent of the world’s existing private art museums were founded in the last 15 years. The report, produced in partnership with Artron (China) and the Getty Research Institute (USA) examines the global rise of private museums based on data from 317 museums in 45 countries. In addition to rising economies like China, the robust study charts private museums in the Old World, and notes a rise particularly in countries like Italy and Greece where the state-museum system is in decline. “Private museums will continue to claim a dominant role in the museum landscape since their resources and funding do not rely on public money,” the report states.

The growing trend could be a boon for everyone involved. The public is being exposed to more first-class art than ever, and collectors now able to maintain control of their artwork can create unique exhibitions that challenge the status quo. But the recent spike in the number of private museums has also invoked criticism. Private collectors who set up foundations and open their own museums are “narcissistic” and their galleries no better than vanity projects, declared French art historian Patricia Falguières at a conference held last summer at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

In China, where the proliferation of private museums has been even more meteoric (65 per cent of museums in China were built after 2010) museum founders have also been criticised for developing “statement buildings” with little thought to the content. “The rich in this country think that by building museums, they will automatically have culture,” Chinese architect Lyndon Neri, one half of Shanghai-based Neri & Hu, said at Beijing Design Week. “They do not realise that building is not synonymous to content or, for that matter, culture.” 

The Voorlinden Museum in Wassenaar, Netherlands

The Voorlinden Museum in Wassenaar, Netherlands

And yet the whims and wallets of wealthy collectors increasingly control the “content” of today’s art world. Art is now seen as an equal asset class to stocks, property and jewellery, and, as a growing number of affluent collectors buy it as an investment, state-funded institutions are being priced out of the market. Average fine-art auction prices doubled from 2009 to 2013 in the United States alone, according to the European Art Fine Art Foundation. This year, despite talks of a slowdown, Christie’s auction in New York achieved more than US$657 million in sales, including a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting that sold for US$57 million.

Meanwhile, buying on a state budget has become increasingly difficult. “Our [annual government] budget for acquisitions is €1.2 million,” Bernard Blistène, president of Centre Pompidou in Paris recently disclosed. “That’s only enough to buy a watercolour by Elizabeth Peyton; it is an absurd situation, we are not in a position to grow.” Public institutions are out-bid by private collectors, critics say, and the potential for gifted works is reduced if collectors have their own museums to fill.

Some private institutions have also been criticised as tax exempt exhibition spaces that allow collectors to deduct the full market value of the art, cash and stocks they donate. J Tomilson Hill admitted in an interview with the New York Times that the tax benefit was part of the motivation to open his museum in Chelsea. “I can shelter capital gains,” he said. In a country like China, which does not have the philanthropic culture that exists in Europe or America, art collectors don’t receive tax deductions, but incentives often come in the form of government policy. The National People’s Congress named “museum growth” as a goal in both of its five-year plans since 2010 and so private and industry-based art collectors often receive favourable government real estate deals for their museums.

While opening private museums may appear vain or opportunistic – the attempt of the world’s rich to secure a legacy that outlasts their positions on the Forbes billionaires list – many collectors do so because they feel a sense responsibility to the public. They use their museums less as MoMa-sized selfies and more as cultural incubators. “We decided to make our collection accessible to the public because we feel we have a huge responsibility as collectors towards our artists and to the Turkish art community,” Sevda and Can Elgiz, the married couple who founded the Elgiz Museum in Istanbul, tell us. “We believe that we have to make the artworks visible. This is one of the ways that private collectors support their artists.”

The sculpture exhibition "Fugitive Shadow" is currently held at the Elgiz Museum.

The sculpture exhibition "Fugitive Shadow" is currently held at the Elgiz Museum.

Indeed, by opening museums collectors are able to share their works with the public instead of keeping them locked away in homes or storehouses. Until Hill opens his museum next year, the bulk of his collection, which includes 14 Christopher Wools, 10 Warhols, four Lichtensteins and some 34 Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, will remain in storage.

By making their personal collections visible, collectors can also show artwork that is absent from state-funded museums. This was a motivating factor for Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo when she founded the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (FSRR) in Turin, Italy, in 1995. “When I started collecting, my curiosity and passion led me to visit many museums and cultural institutions abroad,” she recalls. “I remember seeing galleries dedicated to Italian artists. It seemed incredible that you had to go abroad to admire Italian contemporary art.”

Similarly, the Elgiz Museum became the first contemporary art museum in Istanbul when it opened in 2001 and it has played an important role in the development of Turkey’s contemporary art scene. In addition to its permanent collection, the museum stages two major exhibitions a year. Currently the museum is showing “Fugitive Shadow”, a sculpture exhibition with 28 works by Turkish and international artists inspired by The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic, as well as “Lines of Passage”, an international exhibition in Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesvos that explores memory and perception through painting, sculpture, photographs and video. “Art is as important and breathing, and so necessary for our country and national identity,” the Elgizs say.

Dr Can and Sevda Elgiz, founder of the Elgiz Museum in Istanbul.

Dr Can and Sevda Elgiz, founder of the Elgiz Museum in Istanbul.

In Turin, Rebaudengo says she views her foundation’s role principally as “cultural producer.” In addition to permanent and guest exhibitions, FSRR finances the production of new works and creates partnerships with various national and international cultural institutions, including the Tate Modern and Serpentine Gallery in London and the Hara Museum in Tokyo, to bring the work to an international audience.

“It’s interesting to me when there is a larger cultural project,” Rebaudengo says, “not just giving visibility to what one owns but really helping to produce something new in terms of ideas, formats, educational projects, content.” The aim of private players, she believes, should not be to replace the public ones, but to collaborate with them.

Collaborations and partnerships are important because they help to expand the lens of private museums beyond subjective tastes or the latest art market hype. The so-called “blue-chip” artists are by far the most popular collectibles found in private art museums. According to Larry’s List, Andy Warhol is the most widely collected artist and currently present in 15 collections globally. And collectors are sometimes accused of manipulating the market by giving relatively unknown artists in their collections extensive visibility.

A focus on cultural production could also benefit China’s growing number of museums, which sometimes focus too much on optics instead of local talent. “If you haven’t noticed, China likes to do things big,” says Aric Chen, curator of architecture and design at M+ in Hong Kong. “It’s all about the hardware, with scant attention given to the software.” But Chen says he is starting to see a number of smaller museums in rural areas that do engage their local arts communities.

In Hong Kong a number of private museums have popped up over the past few years, including Liang Yi Museum, which showcases Chinese antique furniture collected by tycoon Peter Fung Yiu-fai. “As a private museum, we can afford to be less concerned about ever-increasing visitors numbers, unlike some of the public institutions,” notes Lynn Fung, director of Liang Yi Museum. “This allows us to be more creative in our programming, and bring in exhibitions that are perhaps more niche or unusual. It also gives us space to be more adventurous in how we operate on a daily basis. For example, our open display policy, where visitors are allowed to touch the exhibited objects, could only work in a private museum, which can limit its visitor numbers.”

But more could be done to encourage their establishment, as well as the cross-pollination of ideas and programmes between institutions that nourish the local arts scene. For a city of its size that boasts a newfound prominence in the art world, Hong Kong could certainly benefit from a little more “software”. As Art Stage Singapore director Lorenzo Rudolf noted in a recent interview with, the sharp uptick of private collectors and private museums in Asia in recent years hasn’t yet translated into a major presence of Asian artists in those collections.

During an exhibition at the FSRR

During an exhibition at the FSRR

If private art museums succeed in engaging both artists and viewers, the model of private versus public institutions may itself become outdated. “Do we still have to distinguish between public and private?” asks Rebaudengo. “Couldn’t we just agree that some private players can undertake a social mission if they have the means and the will to do so – and that they can end up having a role just as important and government-funded museums?”

Certainly if you take the longterm view, the distinction becomes less vital. The Tate Modern and the British Museum in London, as well as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, not to mention the entire cultural capital of Florence, all started on the basis of private collections and today are firmly embedded in the public realm. As private museums continue to increase in number and stature, the idea of public and private sphere intertwining seems inevitable and likely for the long-term public good.



When it’s time to build a space in which to exhibit their art, collectors often enlist “starchitects” to create cutting edge spaces. Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl have all teamed up with private collectors, and their designs are often part of the draw. While design approaches vary, even the most expressionistic architects agree museums should give primacy to the art on display.

1. BEYELER FOUNDATION                                                                                                 COLLECTOR: ERNST BEYELER                                                                                            LOCATION: RIEHEN, SWITZERLAND                                                                                   ARCHITECT: RENZO PIANO

Italian architect Renzo Piano designed this glass-walled masterpiece in the hills above the city of Basel. “A museum should attempt to interpret the quality of the collection and define its relationship with the outside world. This means taking an active, but not an aggressive role,” the architect said. When Beyeler died in 2010, his collection, which includes many Modernist works, was valued at US$1.85 billion.


2. MUSEO SOUMAYA                                                                                                         COLLECTOR: CARLOS SLIM                                                                                                 LOCATION: MEXICO CITY, MEXICO                                                                               ARCHITECT: FR-EE FERNANDO ROMERO ENTERPRISE

Designed by Carlos Slim’s son-in-law, Fernando Romero, the Museo Soumaya houses Slim’s extensive private collection of more than 70,000 pieces. The shimmering façade is made of 16,000 hexagonal aluminium plates and the sculptural form is a nod to Slim’s Rodin collection, the largest in the world in private hands.


SIFANG ART MUSEUM                                                                                                    COLLECTOR: LU JUN                                                                                                         LOCATION: NANJING, CHINA                                                                                         ARCHITECT: STEVEN HOLL ARCHITECTS

Steven Holl’s 21,528-square-foot exhibition space is divided into a ground floor and an upper gallery suspended in the air. Located at the leafy entrance of Laoshan National Forest Park, the museum houses contemporary artists from around the world, including Mad'In Company, a Chinese art collective. “The role of architecture is to form a spatial energy with inspirational light in respect to the expression of each artwork,” Holl says.


4. THE BROAD                                                                                                                     COLLECTOR: ELI BROAD                                                                                                      LOCATION: LOS ANGELES, USA                                                                                          ARCHITECT: DILLER SCOFIDIO + RENFRO

Billionaire Eli Broad’s extensive collection is now on display at a new US$140 million building in Los Angeles. Dubbed “Veil and Vault”, the structure features a honeycomb exoskeleton and white gallery spaces that encircle the archives and offers occasional glimpses of the city streets. On the third floor, natural light streams in through a profusion of skylights.


5. FONDAZIONE SANDRETTO RE REBAUDENGO                                                             COLLECTOR: PATRIZIA SANDRETTO RE REBAUDENGO                                                   LOCATION: TURIN, ITALY                                                                                                    ARCHITECT: CLAUDIO SILVESTRIN

The London-based architect created a light,  minimalist structure with 1,600 square feet of exhibition space and a 144-seat auditorium. “The building was designed to be a neutral space where artists could work freely, without any visual conflict or distraction caused by the surrounding architecture,” says Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. “It is an ideal container for contemporary art exhibitions.”



For the Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake, the best place to view contemporary art is not a white-walled museum but an archipelago in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. Working with architect Tadao Ando, he created a series of structures that follow the natural forms of the landscape. Contemporary art spills out of buildings into scattered locations along the seashore and nearby forest.


COLLECTOR: CHRISTIAN AND KAREN BOROS                                             LOCATION: BERLIN, GERMANY                                                                      ARCHITECT: KARL BONATZ

This windowless building was originally designed as a Nazi-era bunker and is a true eyesore. Nevertheless, the building forms an intriguing context for the collection, which highlights works of contemporary art from 1990 onwards. Karen Boros, who lives with her husband and son in a penthouse on the top floor, estimates that half of their visitors are more interested in the bunker itself than the art.

This story appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Peak



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