Public vs private art collections: who controls our cultural heritage?
The BMW Art Guide lists 256 private
collections worldwide that are currently open to the public. But this figure
omits the swiftly increasing number of multi-million dollar, independently
operated gallery spaces that are stimulating audiences’ enthusiasm for art.
Privately owned museums are on the rise and they’re dramatically changing the
Eli and Edythe Broad’s eponymous museum in Los
Angeles, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, Budi Tek’s Yuz
Museum in Shanghai, and Venetian palaces operated by François Pinault, Miuccia
Prada and, most recently, Russian petrochemical billionaire Leonid
Mikhelson, are just a few of the institutions that rival, and often outstrip,
public museums in their buying power, influence, and blockbuster exhibitions.
Private patronage of the arts is nothing new. Solomon
R. Guggenheim established a foundation for his art collection in 1937 and
opened a museum two years later. Many good things flow from this kind of
philanthropic investment. Developing and housing an art collection can involve the
regeneration of urban environments and the commissioning of innovative new
architecture. The proposed transformation of Paris’s former Commodities
Exchange by Japanese architect Tadao Ando into an exhibition space
for the personal collection of luxury brand billionaire François Pinault is a
case in point.
Employment opportunities and initiatives for artists
will undoubtedly follow. Previously inaccessible works will be made available
to the public, a socially-oriented step that a private collector is not under
any obligation to take. In the absence of adequate state funding for the arts,
the generosity of individuals can fill a significant gap in the cultural life
of a city. So is there anything to worry about?
Museum culture’s “drift” into private ownership seems
part of a familiar pattern. The state rolls back provision and individuals pick
up the slack. The question is, who then calls the shots? In the case of the
arts, collectors’ personal tastes are increasingly influencing the kind of art
that is commissioned, exhibited and ultimately written into history. We now
need to ask who collects what and for whom?
We think of museums as trustees of a nation’s cultural
capital. Curators choose and preserve artefacts for the benefit of future
generations. They shape lasting impressions of communities and their aesthetic
values and creativity. These are weighty responsibilities and public museums
have often been judged harshly for the selective legacies crafted by their key
decision-makers. Since the mid-1980s, the feminist activist Guerilla Girls have
brought into focus significant gender and ethnic biases in museums around the
world through a series of high-profile interventions, poster campaigns and
The stakes are higher when the burden of public
accountability is removed. Free from the demands of representing a wider
community, private collectors are able to pursue and exhibit works that reflect
their own interests. What art histories will they forge? Will newly
self-fashioned museums track the changing patterns of the market, display the idiosyncrasies
of the individual, or give voice to the unfamiliar, the politically
challenging, the historically neglected?
These questions attach not just to the acquisition,
but also to the sale of art. Publicly funded museums adhere to rules about
selling works in their collection. Such regulation is important for artists
whose reputations may depend on the grant of museum endorsement. In contrast to
public institutions, private collectors enjoy the prerogative of selling works
when it suits them.
Consider the evolution of Charles Saatchi’s
collection. Saatchi forged the Young British Art brand in the 1990s,
making Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn and others
familiar to audiences around the world. While works by that group were once a
cornerstone of Saatchi’s Gallery, they no longer figure significantly in his
collection. The gallery, housed at the Duke of York’s HQ in Chelsea,
is dedicated to the “new” and understands that mission as requiring regular disposal
of the past whether by way of gift or sale.
This is not unprecedented in the case of museums that
provide snapshots of the “contemporary”. But it does raise questions about the
ways in which we expect art institutions to meet the needs of audiences through
time. Museums are lasting repositories of collective memory, spaces that debate
the past and contest urgent issues in the present. That means we need to keep a
watchful eye on the ambitions and policies of institutions that shape our
cultural landscape and consider how they impact on the public interest both now
and in the future.
One thing that history has shown us is that the art
world benefits from a diverse range of voices and perspectives. Models of
public-private partnership that foster knowledge-sharing need to emerge,
enabling new and established museums to learn from each other and from the
past. At the very least, art audiences need to be aware of shifts in the
direction of collective heritage and not stand by as economic influence becomes
a source of cultural domination. It is only by enhancing exchange between
artists, institutions and their publics that we have a chance to secure a
dynamic art “ecosystem” for the 21st century and beyond.
Source: The Conversation. Author: Kathyrn Brown