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To Keep or to Donate: Foundations Wrestle With the Question

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Eli Broad's announcement that he is leaving his vast collection of contemporary art in one of his foundations rather than donating it to a museum has left the museum world virtually speechless.

Of 17 major museums around the country contacted for their views on Mr. Broad's decision, only two provided anyone to speak about its potential impact.

"They're like ostriches," said one adviser who works with major art donors and asked not to be identified because she did not want to jeopardize her relationship with her clients. "They believe that if they don't acknowledge what he did publicly, it won't happen to them."

Mr. Broad has said he hopes other collectors will follow his example, which he regards as being in the best interests of the public. "I think it's a new model that makes sense for other collections," he said in an interview with The New York Times when he announced his plan in January. "If it was up to me, I believe that museums ought to own works jointly."

Such sentiment borders on heresy among museums, which devote lavish attention to collectors like Mr. Broad in hopes of securing donations of art to enhance their collections and prestige. Artwork donations have become even more precious as art prices have soared, straining acquisitions budgets.

"The reason this is such an issue of concern that people are talking about, but not wanting to talk about publicly, is because it is a kind of precedent that does have serious implications for institutions," said Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. "What I worry about is that it will inspire a movement that will impact gifts to institutions over time."

James B. Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago and editor of the book "Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust," said he was also concerned about the effect Mr. Broad's decision could have on cities like Chicago, where museums are part of the civic fabric.

"It won't achieve what the founders of our public museums achieved, which is building these great institutions that provide generations with access to works of art that is an integral part of life in the city," Mr. Cuno said. "Going to the Metropolitan Museum is part of the life of a second grader in New York, part of his or her civic experience."

But arts management experts view Mr. Broad's decision differently. "In a way, the story is, 'How do you get stuff out to the public and to broader places beyond the United States?' " said Alberta Arthurs, a consultant. "Broad has a very interesting idea about one way of making sure art is out and accessible to a variety of audiences."

The Broad Art Foundation, the organization that will keep the Broad collection, was founded in 1984 to increase public exposure to contemporary art without encumbering museums with the costs associated with owning it. It has lent more than 7,000 works to some 450 institutions, reaching more than 100 million people.

The fact that Mr. Broad already has a foundation helps explain his decision, and at the same it offers hope that it will not end up starting a trend, said Margaret J. Wyszomirski, director of the graduate arts policy and administration program at Ohio State University.

"Any decision to break up the collection or donate all or some of it to a specific museum could be seen as undermining the mission of the foundation," she said. "For that reason, the Broad case might be less of a general harbinger than an idiosyncratic instance."

These days, museums are leaning on patrons more and more to help them expand into new categories of art as well as complement existing collections, Ms. Wyszomirski said.

That was certainly the expectation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has a new entity, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, named for Mr. Broad, long regarded as its most powerful board member.

"From this perspective, the Broad decision to keep his collection intact and merely loan the museum pieces might prompt other museums to worry that other collectors might follow suit and loan rather than donate their artworks," Ms. Wyszomirski said.

Glenn Fuhrman, a co-founder with Michael Dell of the investment firm MSD Capital, established the Flag Art Foundation in the last year, which lends works from Mr. Fuhrman's collections and others to museums. And Adam Sender, a young hedge fund manager, and Peter Brant, a publisher, are lending their collections in much the same way as Mr. Broad.

Arts management experts said Mr. Broad's decision, while striking, was really just another challenge to building museum collections over the last several years. Donors are more demanding, insisting on greater control over how their gifts are displayed, lighted and lent.

"We're seeing a more dynamic set of relationships between museum management and various outsiders that help museums pay for artworks and donate them," said Bill Ivey, director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University and author of an upcoming book, "Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights."

"Whether corporate donors that want exhibits and programs to tie into their corporate objectives, or individuals who care about how the artwork they are donating looks on the walls, we're seeing much more give-and-take than in the past," he said.

The spaces that exhibit art to the public are also increasing in number, with collectors like Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir, and Donald Fisher, the founder of the Gap, establishing their own museums.

Beyond that, artists are creating foundations instead of giving their works to museums, and museums themselves are increasingly circulating pieces from their own collections.

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville is an example of what Mr. Ivey described as "a minor trend" in this country. It has no collection per se, but instead acts as an exhibition space like a German Kunsthalle — literally "art hall."

"These places have more innovative programming because they are less beholden to and encumbered by a permanent collection," said Andras Szanto, a writer and consultant who teaches at Sotheby's Institute of Art.

The real issue underlying the debate over Mr. Broad's decision, Mr. Szanto said, is whether such moves are better for the public. "There may be sore feelings about it, but the possibility is that most of this art will be seen rather than warehoused, and that is a good thing."

Mr. Broad feels his decision has been mischaracterized as a betrayal of the Los Angeles County museum, said Karen Denne, a spokeswoman for him. "The museum establishment doesn't like any change in the status quo, but this is a change in the status quo that will benefit the public," she said.

"The benefit to the museums is that they do not have to pay for storage or curatorial care, and their insurance costs are significantly less than if they owned the works outright," she added.

But Ms. Viso of the Walker said she feared that other collectors who might follow Mr. Broad's lead did not understand that aspect of his decision. "There are a handful of people who have the kind of resources to endow an institution in the way Mr. Broad can, but many other collectors who don't," Ms. Viso said. "We have plenty of examples of individual collectors opening their own institutions, and over 10, 15, 20 years realizing how challenging it is to maintain, preserve, conserve, insure and lend works of art."

The Walker itself started out as a private gallery of the lumber baron T. B. Walker, who then turned it into a museum but failed to agree with the city on terms that would make it a public institution. Some 70 years later, his descendants took that step.

"I understand Eli's frustration, because I hear it from a lot of collectors, that they give works that then disappear into museums' storage rooms," Ms. Viso said. "I also understand the logic of making art more available to the public, but that's what museums do already."

By Stephanie Strom
For The New York Times

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