Tatler’s Guide to Building Your Own Museum
You see it in the fevered bidding at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Phillips. It’s palpable in the sprint to pick up the choicest seven-and-eight-figure works at Art Basel Miami Beach (an acquisitive frenzy known as “Billionaires’ Black Friday”). Today, no ultra-high-net-worth individual worth their salt—or their Forbes rich list position—would be without an extensive collection of trophy art.
The competition for the most sought-after pieces is fierce, but for the winners, the question remains: how best to display the spoils of victory? It would be a shame to stash the stuff in bonded storage or hang it in one of your homes.
Gazing with cat-that-got-the-cream satisfaction upon hard-won booty from Picasso, Richter, Koons, Freud, Hockney, Hirst, Bacon and Basquiat, more and more collectors are coming to the conclusion that their museum-quality art deserves to be housed... in a museum.
There’s always the option of donating a collection or part thereof to an existing institution—most will happily name a gallery in the donor’s honour if the bequest is generous enough. The true philanthropist, however, will insist upon building (and naming) a museum all their own. With charity and goodwill, they’ll set out to create a place where their rarefied peer group and the masses alike might come to marvel at the collector’s good taste, resourcefulness and largesse. If you’re inspired to follow this philanthropic path, here’s how...
Step 1: Curate Your Collection
“Someone who’s looking to establish a gallery will have doubtless been collecting for a number of years; they’ll have a history,” says Benjamin Hampe, consultant and curator for the ASEAN Secretariat and its gallery, and a private advisor with Arndt Art Agency. Hampe believes the collector should resist the urge to simply buy big-name “blue chip” art and, instead, follow their tastes, exploring and supporting work by rising artists.
“If a museum is a personal enterprise, it should be reflective of the person who is supporting the institution,” he says. “A really good example is the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania. That museum is truly a reflection of its founder, David Walsh, and his personality—and it is quite a personality. Visitors get a sense of why Walsh collected the works, and that’s really interesting.”
The founder and CEO of contemporary art and design consultancy The Artling, Talenia Phua Gajardo, also advocates freethinking. When a collector is accumulating the art they’ll display in their private museum, she says, “Generally it starts where their passions lie and there are no set rules. That’s the beauty of private museums—owners create their own realities.”
However, as the museum owner should be looking to display at the very least 200 works, with a minimum total value of about US$20 million, it’s prudent to consult an advisor like Phua Gajardo or Hampe to ensure funds are wisely deployed. “We can help you identify artists worthy of your support, finding avenues for them to continue working and creating sustainable careers,” says Hampe. “That’s an area in need of a boost in Southeast Asia.” Phua Gajardo adds an art advisor could assist with “connecting the client to other art institutions, artists or galleries, helping to develop the museum’s curatorial programme, and bringing other patrons to the fold.”
Step 2: Select A Location
Pardon the pun, but there is an art to figuring out where to locate your private museum. Most benefactors will want the museum to be close to home, near where they (and their social circle) live. But in high-density, costly cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, centrally located real estate—in fact, land of any description—comes at a steep price. You’re looking at US$14,000 per square metre for a prime spot in central Singapore, double that in Hong Kong.
In the United States, Miami’s Rubell Gallery recently relocated to the gritty industrial neighbourhood of Allapattah. This allowed the private museum housing Don and Mera Rubell’s 7,200-work collection to occupy a vast 9,200sqm block featuring 40 galleries, a theatre, library, bookshop and restaurant.
Your decision: location, location, location? Or: space, space, space? China’s He family, the billionaire clan behind Midea electronics, chose the latter, situating their expansive 16,000sqm He Art Museum in Shunde district in Guangdong province. Opening this month, the museum—built at a cost of some 200 million yuan (more than US$28 million)—will house the family’s impressive collection, including major works by Picasso, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Zhang Daqian and Liu Ye.
Mainland China is in the midst of a museum-building spree. Where only a few hundred existed in the 1980s, there are now more than 5,100. Numerous museums have been created on Shanghai’s West Bund—the strip is now crammed with culture. Beijing’s Chaoyang District is another area where visitors are artistically spoilt for choice.
Other countries in Asia are less well served, however, which could be a factor in the decision over where to establish a new institution. “It would be great to see a good-quality contemporary private museum in Singapore,” says Phua Gajardo. “Space or land is always the issue. Taxes and government subsidies, or lack thereof, also pose a challenge.”
According to Hampe, “The whole region needs more institutions; they’re welcome anywhere.” He says aspiring private museum founders should heed the example of entrepreneur Haryanto Adikoesoemo, the driving force behind Museum Macan in Jakarta. “He identified a space in terms of contemporary art museums in Indonesia that just didn’t exist, and he went ahead and resourced a fully operational museum, totally through private funds,” says Hampe admiringly.
Step 3: Design And Build
A drawing of the soon-to-open He Art Museum in Shunde, Guangdong (Image: © HEM)
A rendering of He Art Museum (Image: © HEM)
Asked for their dream lists of potential museum architects, Hampe and Phua Gajardo both mention, among others, Tadao Ando. The aforementioned He Art Museum is the work of self-taught architect Ando, who has designed a plethora of institutions in his native Japan, the United States and Europe. He’s also repeatedly brought his brand of zen brutalism to Mainland China, with the Aurora Museum, the Shanghai Poly Grand Theatre and the Shanghai Design Centre among his other works there.
Working on commercial projects with construction costs in the tens of millions, architects generally charge a basic fee of between 6.5 to 8 per cent of the building budget. Yet starchitects like Ando, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and David Adjaye are so in demand that they can pick and choose jobs and name their price. If, like the He family, you’re looking to spend in the vicinity of US$30 million constructing your museum, you’d be wise to put aside another US$3 million or so to secure the services of a marquee-name architect.
Also, as with any construction job, be prepared for the possibility of costs ballooning. Designed by Gehry, Bernard Arnault’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris was originally budgeted at €100 million. Reports suggest, however, that at the end of its eight-year construction, the final bill amounted to more than seven times that sum. (One hopes for Arnault’s sake that Gehry billed on the basis of the original figure.)
When plotting out your museum, learn from others’ mistakes, counsels Phua Gajardo. “The best thing to do would be to visit other private museums for reference points. In Mainland China alone, there are now thousands of private museums, with a large concentration of higher-quality, well-programmed museums centralised in Shanghai,” she says. “In the US, there are more than 35,000. There are many case studies that can inform this process and can help to determine scale, content, design and more. Likewise, these built references can also serve as references for what not to do.”
Step 4: Get Up And Running
Hampe says that with curatorial degrees being offered at many universities around the world, people are now being specifically trained for the job of running a major art museum. At the moment, though, the pool of premier league talent in this area is limited. “In the art world, for the very top job at a museum, there’s not a lot of people who actually have the ability to do it,” he says.
On the plus side, because there are so few of them, they’re easy to identify. “It’s a pretty close-knit group of people and if the person building this institution is connected, which I imagine they are, they’ll know who to approach” to head up operations at the new museum, suggests Hampe. “Hiring is difficult, because the person running the museum needs to be reflective of the character of the institution. Get advice and seriously think it through,” he advises.
According to Phua Gajardo, it’s vital you hire “someone with experience in fundraising, dealing with sponsors.” Indeed, once the gallery has been constructed and your spectacular collection hung, you’ve really only just begun. Will visitors come? How will the institution sustain itself? With yet more money from your own purse? “Of course, it all sounds very glamorous to establish a museum,” says Hampe. “But these things take a lot of resources, lifelong effort and commitment. Unless you have the energy, the passion and the wherewithal, you need to really think hard about whether or not you’re prepared to make that commitment.” Matisse once said, “Creativity takes courage.” So too, it seems, does opening your own museum—plus a helluva lot of time and money.