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The Secluded World of Private Museums

Much of the world’s finest art can now be found in private museums, despite the legal and financial challenges of operating them.

Split-Rocker Jeff Koons Photo: Glenstone

Richard Serra’s 223-foot-long strip of weatherproof steel caresses a gentle hill at Glenstone, a temple to contemporary art in Maryland. Nearby is the spot Ellsworth Kelly chose to stand a 45-foot-tall stainless-steel totem at the edge of a pond like a beacon. British land artist Andy Goldsworthy went one step further, using earth excavated on site to make the clay structures, including a giant, cracked boulder, that rest inside three stone cottages he built in the woods. But Michael Heizer may have one-upped them all with his two pieces. One, a pit of steel beams in a roofless room, is built directly into the foundation of architect Thomas Phifer’s new 240,000-square-foot Glenstone expansion, called the Pavilions. “You cannot remove it unless you demolish it,” says Emily Wei Rales, who with her multibillionaire husband, Mitchell, erected the museum on the bucolic 230-acre estate.

For his other piece, Heizer proposed a 75-foot steel-lined trench in the ground, piled around with 2,200 cubic yards of soil and rock, which he said would force the steel walls to curve until they kissed at the midpoint. The structural engineer Glenstone hired said it couldn’t be done, the steel wouldn’t bend; but Heizer, famed for having spent decades digging up the Nevada desert to create his epic City, stood firm. The Raleses fired the engineer. The resulting piece, Compression Line, behaves just as Heizer foretold.

The episode, which Rales estimates spanned 10 years from meeting Heizer to installing his artwork, is indicative of not only the couple’s unflagging support for the artists in their collection but also the degree to which some of their art is inextricably rooted in Glenstone itself. It is an apt metaphor for some collectors’ determination that their collections remain intact and under their control, which increasingly means founding their own museums. In 2016 the art-collector database Larry’s List identified some 317 private contemporary-art museums worldwide, a whopping 71 percent of which had opened since 2001. Miami led the pack with eight.

Glenstone path

Artfully composed approach to Glenstone  Photo: Iwan Baan

Serious Business


Glenstone obviously isn’t some hedge-fund mogul’s spare SoHo loft where he can show off his overpriced trinkets by young artists who have yet to stand the test of time. This is a deadly serious endeavor with a staff of 130 and a rigorous framework for collecting: The Raleses won’t even entertain buying work until the artist has exhibited for at least 15 years. In other words, it’s the kind of collection that major museums—the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art—would have been jockeying to receive. Eli and Edythe Broad, Ronald Lauder, and François Pinault are just some of the top collectors who, like the Raleses, have opted to create their own museums. Their stated reasons for going it alone vary, but one thing is clear: There’s a fine line between ego and altruism.

“Our collection is well over 2,000 works,” says Eli Broad, one of the nation’s leading philanthropists. “I’ve been on museum boards. I’ve seen so many collectors give their collections, and maybe 5 or 10 percent of it is shown. The rest ends up in storage. That isn’t very satisfying to someone who’s spent decades building the collection and wants to share it with the broadest possible audience.”

Directors of established, public museums are, for the most part, pragmatic. “I would not be honest if I didn’t say, ‘Yeah, I would like Eli’s collection,’” says Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney. But, he adds, putting the art in a private museum where the public can still view it is better than it ending up at auction.

Private museums are nothing new. The Whitney, the Menil, the Guggenheim, the Barnes, and the Frick are just a few public institutions that had their start thanks to the largesse of a single visionary founder. What is new, however, is the rapid proliferation of institutions like these both in the United States and around the globe.

The pioneers in this generation of museum founders are Don and Mera Rubell, who snapped up future stars like Jeff Koons and Keith Haring at the start of their careers. Eventually their reputations for talent spotting made the subsequent success of their artists an almost foregone conclusion; their clout ignited Miami even before Art Basel’s must-see art fair rolled into town. The Rubell Family Collection will more than double its space in 2019 when it moves from its home of 25 years, in a former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse, to a new 100,000-square-foot building designed by art-world darling Annabelle Selldorf.

Rubell Family Collection installation

An installation at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami  Photo: Rubell Family Collection

A Passion for Art

What all these collectors have in common—something skeptics can have trouble relating to—is an abiding love of art. Museum founders also tend to be control freaks. Many, like Andy Hall, are self-made billionaires and used to doing things their way. A longtime collector, Hall went into overdrive in response to a mild midlife crisis and the 9/11 attacks, deciding, much like Mitch Rales after a near-death experience, that he wanted to leave behind a legacy that wasn’t just piles of money. “Maybe that was a narcissistic streak in me or a bit of vanity,” he says from Vermont, where the Hall Art Foundation mounts exhibitions on a former dairy farm.

The foundation also funds a long-term exhibition from the Halls’ Anselm Kiefer holdings at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and converted Schloss Derneburg, the onetime home of artist Georg Baselitz near Hanover, into a massive museum with multiple exhibitions on view simultaneously. Visitors may not wander—the castle is simply too vast, Hall says—but instead must book a guided tour of either two or five hours’ duration or a customized group appointment.  The long tour, which is limited to 20 guests and costs about $87 each, provides lunch, coffee, and cake for a very civilized experience. “You can’t cherry-pick,” Hall says. “You have to see the whole thing.” And the Halls aren’t finished: They’re currently renovating more buildings on the property and envision instituting a two-part visit.

Like the Raleses, the Halls collect in depth—“I always thought, if you’re going to own one work by a certain artist, why not own a dozen?” Hall says. He acknowledges that opening the museums has raised his and his wife Christine’s profile considerably. While gallerists used to act aloof at art fairs, “now we can’t walk down the aisle without being stopped by a dozen dealers,” he says. “We joke we should go in disguise.”

Brant Foundation gallery

A gallery at the Brant Foundation  Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Political Pitfalls

The art world seems to understand the impulse to create one’s own museum perfectly well. The political world, not so much. In 2015, Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch launched an investigation of 11 private art foundations’ tax-exempt status, demanding to know how many hours they were open to the public and how many visitors they received. The responses varied wildly.

Rales, for one, found the investigation irritating, since she and her husband had diligently dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s, going so far as to ask for and receive IRS verification that Glenstone’s planned changes were proper. “It’s fine to be audited,” she adds, but she insists that the value of a museum cannot be reduced to attendance figures, particularly when part of an institution’s mission is to offer a place of quiet contemplation. She laments that investigators never accepted their invitation to visit: “It’s a difficult story to tell verbally. You have to be here to experience certain moments, like if you’re sitting in a very beautifully designed, spacious room and you have a giant window looking out onto a beautiful hillside with these gorgeous honey locust trees. It’s a sublime feeling. To be able to take it in without being crowded by people taking selfies is something pretty rare today.”

Hall concurs, calling many of the world’s most popular museums, such as the Louvre and the Tate Modern, victims of their own success. Glenstone keeps the hordes away by enforcing a reservation-only admissions policy. Still, with the reopening this fall, the museum expects to accommodate 100,000 visitors annually. Admission is free and, Rales says, always will be.

To be sure, there are some sketchy examples out there. The website for Seven Bridges, for instance—which claims to have a 100-piece-strong sculpture garden and two galleries in Greenwich, Conn.—does not list visitor information or even an address, just a phone number (calls were not returned) and a contact form that repeatedly resulted in an error message. When financier Richard C. McKenzie Jr. opened it in 2012, he reportedly allowed just six to 10 visitors a day, one day a week.

Peter Brant, an art-world big shot as publisher of Art in America in addition to being a voracious collector—he was still a teenager when he started to buy Warhol—converted an enormous stone barn on his sprawling Greenwich estate to house his Brant Foundation Art Study Center in 2009. Brant, like Hall, has said he felt the creative urge to curate. Twice a year he organizes shows featuring artists in his collection, like Karen Kilimnik and Urs Fischer, and toasts them with splashy, invitation-only opening parties. Since being roundly criticized in the art press for offering limited public access, the foundation’s activity seems to have stepped up, with programming including the occasional yoga or painting workshop (materials not included). A New York location, in the late artist Walter De Maria’s old studio, is slated to open in March with an exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work filling the 7,000 square feet of display space.

The Broad museum exterior

Architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro gave the Groad a fittingly iconic home.  Photo: Jacob Fischer

At the other end of the spectrum are the Broad and the Neue Galerie New York, both vital, blockbuster-producing institutions that could easily be mistaken for public museums. The Neue, on a stretch of Fifth Avenue known as Museum Mile, is the passion project of cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, a repository for his exceptional collection of modern German and Austrian art in a landmark 1914 mansion that drew nearly 250,000 visitors in 2017. On permanent view: Klimt’s iconic portrait of a Viennese socialite, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, aka “The Woman in Gold,” which became a potent symbol of Jewish heirs’ fight to reclaim art that the Nazis had looted from their families. After a protracted legal battle, Austria’s Galerie Belvedere returned the painting in 2006 to Bloch-Bauer’s niece, who sold it to Lauder for $135 million—at the time believed to be the highest price ever paid for a painting.

In Los Angeles, the Broad has attracted 2.4 million visitors in its first three years. Beyond the impressive numbers, its benefactor boasts that the average age of its audience is 33, 12 years younger than typical museumgoers. They’re drawn, he says, by free admission; the instantly iconic Diller Scofidio + Renfro building, with interior windows giving visitors peeks at the thousands of works in storage; and the use of knowledgeable staffers instead of security guards. There’s also the enviable collection, which counts the most works by Cindy Sherman and one of the largest of Koons, among others, in the world.

Showplaces like the Neue Galerie and the Broad don’t come cheap. Broad, who is 85, is leaving his namesake museum an endowment in the hundreds of millions of dollars—more, he says, than any museum in Los Angeles except the Getty. But even for a collector with a much smaller scale in mind, annual operating costs including security, upkeep, and insurance can easily top $1 million.

The Broad Jeff Koons

The Broad’s collection includes one of the world’s largest groups of works by Jeff Koons.  Photo: Ryan Miller

Even if that kind of cash requirement doesn’t pose a problem, the potential legal hazard of self-dealing might. Naive collectors sometimes think they can skirt the rules by putting their holdings into a foundation, taking the tax deduction, then borrowing back artworks to hang in their houses. But that’s a serious no-no. Same goes for calling your suburban backyard a “sculpture garden.” A lawyer who works extensively with foundations—and who requested anonymity because she was not authorized by her firm to speak on these matters—says that the government also often looks askance at art foundations in close proximity to founders’ homes, which allow them to “walk across the street to look at their art with their morning coffee.” One version of the 2017 Republican tax bill would have clamped down on some of the flightier foundations with limited public access, but those regulations fell out before the final vote.

Another common practice that raises eyebrows but is legal, according to the lawyer, is creating a foundation but maintaining ownership of the bulk of the collection. The Halls, for example, have gifted a fraction of their roughly 6,000 artworks to their foundation. “I’m just not quite at the point in my life when I want to give away the rest of my art collection,” says Hall, who is 67, quickly adding, “if Christine and I are hit by a truck tomorrow, God forbid, the foundation would receive the vast majority of our collection.”

Collectors like the Halls can continue to enjoy the art in the privacy of their own homes, and when it is on loan to their foundations, the foundations can pick up carrying costs such as storage, transportation, and insurance. “You can have your cake and eat it too,” says the lawyer. Adding to the ethics quandary: An extensive exhibition provenance often increases the value of an artwork, so collectors could profit from the foundation’s display of their personal property. Then again, they also profit from lending artworks to public museums. It’s probably no coincidence that the owner of Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), reportedly British currency trader Joe Lewis, decided to put the 1972 canvas on the block this fall, just months after it appeared in a major Hockney retrospective at the Met. In the lead-up to the sale, Christie’s breathlessly predicted the painting would fetch the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by a living artist.

Hall Art Foundation installation

An installation at the Hall Art Foundation’s Schloss Derneburg  Photo: Heinrich Hecht

The Raleses, on the other hand, have already contributed most of their collection to Glenstone, which now has more than 1,300 works in its collection, keeping only a couple hundred pieces in their personal trove. Moreover, they have painstakingly mapped out Glenstone’s future beyond their lifetimes, including provisions that it continue acquiring works only by artists already in the collection and that their Charles Gwathmey–designed house on the estate will become part of the museum. There’s also an endowment, but Rales declined to put a figure on it.

“The real test of a private museum,” says the Whitney’s Weinberg, “is not what happens in five years, 10 years, but in 20, 30.” Well before his tenure, that museum struggled when it became clear the Whitney family could no longer foot the bills. “Somehow institutions become very expensive. You hire more staff. Your buildings age. I’m sure the Barnes thought it would be self-sufficient.” Long story short: It wasn’t.

The Raleses are also determined that the spotlight shine on the artists, not themselves—hence the absence of their name from the museum’s. And don’t ever expect to see an oil painting of the founders in the entrance hall. Says Emily Rales, as if it were a mantra: “No portraits. No busts.”

 

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