Behind the scenes in private museums

By Lucinda Bredin

Published: November 26 2010 22:03 | Last updated: November 26 2010 22:03

`Guilty', the yacht of Greek-Cypriot industrialist Dakis Joannou that
houses his art museum, the cladding of which is painted by Jeff Koons

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.

The collector and philanthropist Eli Broad

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

From: A. Papazian