What’s sexier than having your own art museum?

Not much...

private art museum

Why to do it

There are a lot of reasons why an art collector might want to establish a private art museum. Vanity is probably the biggest one. An owner of a significant collection, with the financial resources, and a passion to share an appreciation and enjoyment of the visual arts might decide to found a privately-funded art gallery or museum to provide public access to their works. Collectors with focused, thematic collections may believe their collections have greater impact and educational value if kept intact and loaned in whole, without being shown or combined with other artworks. Government-funded or university museums would balk at those conditions.

There is also the very real concern that a public/university museum will, at some point, deaccession all or part of the collection or place a big chunk of a gifted collection in storage. Owners and Directors of private museums have complete control of what’s exhibited, and when. Control is often lost when collections are donated to public or university museums, either at the time of donation or later, if there are changes in an institution's curatorial staff and policies. Board members change. Executive directors change. Curators change. At public/university museums, personnel turnover makes drift in collections policy possible and even likely.

How to do it

As a prospective founder, you are well-advised to start with a strategic planning process. The museum's mission, vision, long term goals should be determined at the outset. This part will be tedious. If you think it will be hard, you’re only half right. It will be harder than that. If you are to have any chance of success, do it anyway.

Once mission, vision and long term goals are in place, you want to engage the services of professional consultants to create a business plan, raise money (if further financial resources are required), and to hire your Executive Director and other executives. Cruising the internet for RFP’s and start-up museum business plans could be fun and informative, but hire professionals. Be smart enough to know that you don’t know how to do this.

At some point, you will want to gather names of museums that look, feel and operate the way you think you want your museum to look and feel and operate. Research your model museums and subject them to comparative analysis. Consider factors like visitor volume, the number, and type of exhibitions per year, floor space, how many art objects will be on display for an exhibit, staffing needs, types of ancillary programming, geographic/demographic location, et cetera. You could rent space in an office building or, or you could buy a house for your museum or you could do something else that makes sense. You may not even need permanent exhibition space. A pop-up or traveling exhibition model might work for what you have in mind.

There are tax advantages in establishing and supporting a private museum, to be sure. The expenses of doing so are not inconsequential though, so if it’s not a labor of love it’s probably best not undertaken. All things considered, money spent on art, curators, legal fees, accountants and other consultants and professionals, is much better spent than having been conceded to government theft. (Taxation is theft.) So, even if it’s a financial offset it is a solid way to circulate money back into the productive economy and arts community. If you do undertake the Herculean task of founding your own museum, be sure it’s structured to optimize the tax advantages.

If maximum educational benefit to the public within established financial constraints is a primary stated goal, then a cost/benefit calculation will be useful based on data from other museums. You can get that information easily from IRS Form 990 reports through GuideStar. Form 990 reports can be downloaded for comparative analysis. Your professional analysts can use Form 990 data from model museums to create a rough pro forma for your envisioned museum. Anything not in the Form 990 will require you to contact museums directly for the information you require. Museum people love museums and will probably want to be as helpful as possible. The estimated number of visitors per exhibit, and annually will be an important factor to figure cost/benefit analysis, operating costs and some other things you’ll decide on. Consultants preparing feasibility studies and business plans are often over-optimistic in estimating the number of visitors in the early years of operation, so caution is in order there.

Other options

Having your own art museum is the ultimate vanity indulgence. If you think it’s too much, you’re probably right. You can still realize your philanthropic vision of sharing and educating via your collection.

Aside from establishing a privately-funded museum, there are other way a collector can provide public access, including:

  • residence or office tours

  • lending artworks to museums or professional firms organizing exhibitions

  • creating an online virtual museum (lame).

Exhibits in residences or offices

It’s not uncommon that collectors will open their homes by appointment for students and members of the public to tour their collection. You might want to limit access to scholars or members of local art museum support groups such as collectors' councils. Allowing strangers into your home carries risk of damage and theft, so insurance coverage should be checked regarding those risks. A private curator is a good idea, to conduct informative tours while keeping an eye on the visitors. If your collection is in your firm’s offices, you could open that space for public access. You’ll want to exercise the same care there as in your home. Tax factors will influence policy for public access if artworks become officially owned by a non-profit entity.

Even in the absence of an individual’s kick-ass collection, a group of art-minded philanthropists or collectors with smaller collections could pool resources to found a private museum to bring art to a community in need or to fill some unattended niche. All of the above considerations would still apply.

There are a lot of reasons to share your collections and many ways to do so. Take your time and figure out what makes sense for you and for your legacy.

If you want to learn more about starting a privately funded museum, or other tax-efficient ways to manage and share your collections, check out some of the books featured here with this blog.


William Skeet Jiggetts

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