It would seem a rare privilege: You enter one of the world’s most prestigious art museums, and a staff member ushers you to a private room, away from the crowds. There, the masterpieces you have requested, works not on exhibit for the public, are whisked out of their storage crates and displayed before you by one of the museum’s experts. Nearby, a reference library of academic catalogs, scholarly analyses, and other information which you could search the Internet for forever and never find, awaits to enrich your knowledge and help you become a wiser, savvier collector. Most museum-goers would assume such special access is reserved for select donors and scholars. Insiders, however, know how to receive such special treatment: Simply request it.
“The truth of the matter is that anybody 18 years or older can call or write a letter and ask if we have, say, Grant Wood drawings on paper, and if they want to see them, they can make an appointment,” says Mark Pascal, head of the prints and drawings department at the Art Institute of Chicago.
If you do not ask, you have no idea what you are missing. The vast majority of any museum’s holdings are in storage, and some have as little as 1 percent of their collection on display at any given time. Of course, there are limits to what museums will show privately. Photographs, prints, drawings, and books are usually available, while sculptures, paintings, pottery, and other rare, fragile, and cumbersome objects are not.
Although most museums will accommodate requests for private viewings, no two museums’ policies are alike. Jennifer Russell, deputy director for exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, says that only serious requests from students and scholars are accepted. A positive response to your request can also depend on the size of the institution, because private viewings must be supervised by a knowledgeable staff member, and not all museums can afford to spare one on demand. Large institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago tend to be generous in granting requests, while others simply lack the manpower to do so. The Cleveland Museum of Art lies between these extremes, honoring requests on a case-by-case basis. But, as Cleveland curator Henry Hawley says, making a convincing argument is not difficult. “Explain what your particular interests are and how your visit would be beneficial to you. If you say, ‘I collect Tiffany glass and I’d like to see what you have in storage,’ that’s all that is needed.”
A few general ground rules apply to private viewings. Expect to check your bag or briefcase—artworks have been stolen, even by scholars. You will also have to take notes in pencil, because errant pens can leave permanent marks. But these restrictions pale compared with the liberties that you can enjoy. For example, if you touched a drawing that hung on a gallery wall, you would be thrown out of a museum. In private, however, things might be different. Pascal says that in his department, “We allow guests to touch anything that is not framed.” (Framed works tend to be fragile, and therefore off-limits.) Staffers loan protective gloves to visitors and show them how to handle the matted items properly. Cameras are also permitted as long as no flashes or tripods are involved and only if the images are strictly for personal use.
Other museums will have their own rules for private viewings, but all allow the curious non-scholar to experience quality art in an intimate, unique way. “That’s one of the beauties of coming to visit,” Pascal says. “You get a real behind-the-scenes feel for the museum.”