Behind the scenes in private museums

In the mid-1990s, I was given an assignment by Vogue to write about going shopping with a well-groomed Turinese woman, Patrizia Re Rebaudengo. But instead of Bond Street, the black cab wove around east London – Hoxton, Shoreditch, Deptford and some netherland now probably underneath the Olympic stadium. Re Rebaudengo was not buying clothes, but she was bang on trend: she was acquiring art. And once she started buying works – some of which were the price of a small house – she didn’t stop. The big question was: where she would put it all? The answer arrived five years later in the form of a long 1,500 sq metre building in an industrial suburb of her home town, designed by Claudio Silvestrin. This was the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.

Re Rebaudengo was part of the zeitgeist. In the past 15 years, there has been a proliferation of private museums and galleries that house the collections of the rich. Just a few notable examples are the Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie, in a townhouse in Upper East Side, Manhattan; the Rubell Family Collection in a former customs house in Miami; and François Pinault’s showcases in Venice – the Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal and the Punte della Dogana – unveiled at the 2009 Biennale. Dakis Joannou, the Greek-Cypriot industrialist, has gone further, fusing symbols of extreme wealth: his art museum is housed on a yacht (named “Guilty”), which is arguably a work of art in itself, as the cladding is painted by Jeff Koons.

The recession and talk of swingeing cuts has hardly made a dent in the schedule of new openings. In August, US west coast-based billionaire Eli Broad announced that Diller Scofidio + Renfro are designing a $100m building in Los Angeles, across the road from the Museum of Contemporary Art, to house the Broad Collection. This was trumped in September by the Mexican telecom king, Carlos Slim (the richest man in the world), when he unveiled his plans to build a 150ft-high aluminium structure in Mexico City designed by his son-in-law, Fernando Romero. It will have five storeys of exhibition space to show a small proportion of his 66,000-strong collection.

Of course, showing off your collection is nothing new. What is generally considered to be one of the world’s first museums opened circa 1628 in Kennington, London, where John Tradescant would take visitors around his collection of curiosities gathered from his travels. Tradescant charged sixpence, but since then the motives for opening private museums have not tended to revolve around money but rather to establish one’s intellectual and aesthetic discrimination. In the 1560s, Albrecht V of Bavaria created his celebrated Kunstkammer to flaunt his collection and lord it over other European princes. Buoyed by new world riches, the Whitneys, Fricks, the Guggenheims and the Rockefellers cemented their position as America’s cultural dynasties by funding museums. Indeed, state-funded institutions were the late arrivals at the party – and many of those were based on private initiatives. The founding collection of London’s National Gallery, for instance, belonged to the banker John Julius Angerstein.

But although the private museum model has been well-established, it doesn’t account for the sheer number of museums that have opened in the past 15 years. In Germany, for example, it is estimated that more than a dozen museums have opened since 1995. Understandably, directors of major state institutions have mixed feelings about this trend. Rich collectors were once content to channel their patronage into galleries and museums in return for their name writ large: Robert Lehman, for example, bequeathed his collection to the Metropolitan in 1969 and in return, the museum built a private wing for it. But Lehman had enough clout to ensure that his collection would be displayed together and constantly on public view. Since then, few other collectors have been able to dictate these terms.

Even fabled collections have slipped through the public sector’s fingertips. As long ago as the 1940s the Armenian oil magnate, Calouste Gulbenkian, tried to donate his ensemble of Old Masters and antiquities to the National Gallery. However he found only suspicion when he suggested a private annexe, and negotiations collapsed. Gallery papers released a few years ago show there was a prevailing distaste for Gulbenkian – regarded as a “slippery benefactor” who was undoubtedly trying to leverage an advantageous tax deal – and his collection, which was snobbishly regarded as lacking in connoisseurship. Eventually Gulbenkian’s son, Nubar, custom-built a museum for it in Lisbon.

Today, many private museums are built to make sure the works remain on display. Anna Somers Cocks, the founder editor of The Art Newspaper, traces the rise to the 1990s contemporary art market boom. “During the ascending, speculative market, people put their money into art and began to buy more than they could house. They could, of course, leave it in storage, but then they wouldn’t have the fun. There is a big club of rich collectors with foundations who go to each other’s events, meet at the fairs and feel they are doing a bit of good.” Displaying works could also enhance their value. “It isn’t necessarily that people want to advertise their collection in order to sell the works later,” says Somers Cocks, “but that can’t be a million miles away from people’s consideration.”

It’s unlikely that Eli Broad or any of the other collectors I talked to would agree with the idea. Many have a policy of never selling work. However, when I asked Broad why he was building a separate museum for his collection when Lacma (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) had already built a wing designed by Renzo Piano, no less, he said that while the correct storage of the archive was a consideration: “The space in Santa Monica was woefully inadequate and we wanted everything together.” If he had given his collection to a prestigious institution such as the MoMa in New York, “95 per cent would be in the basement. I want the work to be seen.”

This is the mantra of all collectors with private museums and “spaces”. Anita Zabludowicz and her Finnish husband Poju opened 176 to show their collection in a converted chapel in north London three years ago because of “storage issues” – and, because, as Anita says, once you’ve bought the art, “it’s not fair to young artists to have their work hidden away.” Zabludowicz does admit that at first attendances were disappointing, “but three years on, we now have quite a following. I think we have found a niche.” To tie in with Frieze, 176 has a show by Toby Ziegler, steel shapes based on existing sculptures that have been abstracted by a computer programme and then rendered in three dimensions. By the admission of the collection’s curator, Elizabeth Neilson, it “is not easy work. Anita saw his pieces five years ago and bought it as a message of support, which is in keeping with the philanthrophic outlook to the collection.” The works are also large. The somewhat drastic solution to keep them on show is to build a special “art barn” for them on the island that the Zabludowiczs own in Finland.

Like the Zabludowiczs, many owners of private museums/spaces see themselves as in a position to fill a gap in arts provision. Dasha Zhukova, for example, says that she opened The Garage in Moscow because “there was really no space in Moscow where you could see the best modern and contemporary art from around the world alongside work by leading Russian artists”. Her vision was to import the idea of looking at art as a lifestyle choice. “I saw the building [the former Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, designed in 1926 by Konstantin Melnikov] and I fell in love with it. I wanted to make it into a place where people would come to look at art, buy books in the bookshop, see a film or attend an event and just hang out.”

Patrizia Re Rebaudengo also feels she is filling a gap. When I caught up with her 15 years later, she said she had moved on from showing her collection at the Foundation. These days, she says, other museums ask to show it. She was channelling her efforts into outreach projects. This, she says, is especially needed as the Italian government has historically paid little attention to contemporary art.

Not surprisingly, museum directors are reticent about commenting on private institutions. Who wants to fall out with potential benefactors? Some collectors such as Frank Cohen, the Mancunian DIY king, who has a private space, Initial Access, in Wolverhampton, actively want to collaborate with museums. “Let’s face it,” he says, “I’ve got the funds and the art – and they’ve got the audience. When I loaned my collection to Manchester Art gallery, 77,000 visitors saw it. It was great.” Off the record, though, some museum and gallery heads have voiced their concerns about what will happen to private museums after the founding collector has died. Charles Saatchi tried to pre-empt the problem by offering parts of his collection to the nation in advance but after an enthusiastic welcome, the details of the bequest are yet to be hammered out. Because it is not just a hefty endowment that is needed, it is energy, commitment and passion. Both Zabludowicz and Re Rebaudengo said it was a full-time job. “Ultimately,” said Anna Somers Cocks, “I don’t know whether this phenomenon is going to last.”

Lucinda Bredin is arts editor of The Week and editor of Bonhams Magazine

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