Over the years, collecting art has brought me much satisfaction. As I mentioned in a recent blog (1/6/2017), the pieces I have acquired feel like members of my family, and I am saddened to realize one day they will be sold off, piece by piece, or possibly end up in a landfill. My disappointment isn’t one those with reams of money need face. Rather than see their collections scattered, they can create private museums and benefit from a hefty tax deduction for doing so. Technically, of course, the art no longer belongs to them but to their charitable foundation. Yet, if these “previous owners” appoint themselves board chairmen of their foundation, they retain control over their possession — something tantamount to having your cake and eating it, too.
The chairman may travel from art fair to art fair and acquire new pieces for the museum at the expense of the charitable organization. They can decide what to exhibit and what to store. If the museum gains a solid reputation, the chairman takes the bow and becomes a keeper of the cannon, meaning he or she is seen as a person who shapes cultural tastes. In the entire world, there are 1,810 billionaires who can support a personal museum and several do. There are 236 private contemporary museums in existence today. Eighty percent of them have been established since 2000. (“Privacy Warnings,” by Michael Shnayerson, Town&Country, 2/27 pg. 108)
Drawbacks to owning a museum exist, of course. One major question is what to do with the public. Having a charitable status means providing a public benefit. But ways exist to provide that public benefit without allowing strangers with muddy shoes to traipse across your white carpet. One way is to lend parts of the collection to other charitable institutions. Another is to build a museum far from home and, ideally, one large enough to accommodate the grand scale of much of today’s contemporary art.
Private collectors aren’t curators, however. Most of them buy what they like with little understanding of how each purchase adds or subtracts from the value of the whole, meaning, they aren’t run as museums. This distinction has caught the attention of some members of Congress. Senator Orin Hatch is one who has grown restive. He has asked the IRA to review the tax status of private museums. (Ibid pg. 128) His answer may be a long time coming. These smaller institutions have influential supporters and despite tax deductions, private proprietors drop a lot of cash to get these museums up and running. The altruism argues in their favor.