Skip to main content

“Private museums are reconfiguring the ecology of art,” says Philip Dodd, broadcaster, former director of the ICA and chairman of the advisory board of London art fair Art15. “In some countries, they ‘invent’ the art scene; in others, they outperform their public counterparts. They flourish in countries where the state is withdrawn or weak, and thrive in countries like China where it is too strong.

With this in mind, four years ago Dodd launched the Global Private Museum Summit, a “self-help group” for owners of private museums. In May, during Art15, it will bring together more than 40 owners of private museums from as many countries. Discussion topics include philanthropy and cultural regeneration. “We are less focused on London, New York, Miami and Basel, and more interested in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, where private museums are leading the way,” says Dodd.

The Art15 selection committee includes Tim Marlow, Director of Arts Programs at the Royal Academy of Arts; Sunhee Kim, director and curator of the Daegu Art Museum in South Korea; and Christopher Phillips, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York. All share Dodd’s view of the regenerative power of art and agree that by reaching out to these new markets and trying to approach art – and its infrastructure – within the larger context of regeneration, Art15 can stand out from other art fairs.

Art15 was launched three years ago, as Art13, with a mission to attract galleries outside of Europe and the United States, and to provide an alternative to the selection of the usual prime suspects that dominate the major art fairs. The fair follows the evolution of emerging art markets and explores the growth of private museums supported by collectors. It is in China that the idea of ​​the private museum, ephemeral or permanent, is really gaining ground. And in unexpected places. Last year, more than 340,000 people came to Shanghai’s K11 mall to see an exhibition of 40 works by Monet. K11 founder, billionaire patron Adrian Cheng, borrowed the works from the Marmottan Museum in Paris and admission was free. Cheng hopes to bring his ‘art mall’ concept to 20 more Chinese cities by 2020,” says Cheng, 34, also managing director of New World Development, a luxury conglomerate founded by his grandfather.

Over the past year, the K11 Art Foundation has held more than 200 exhibitions and workshops across China, held pop-ups at Art Basel fairs, and created an “art village” offering residency programs. to young artists in the Chinese city of Wuhan (more to follow). And if anyone doubts his credentials, Cheng is also a trustee of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, a member of the Center Pompidou’s patronage group International Circle, and has set up a three-year partnership between the K11 Art Foundation and the Palace of Tokyo.

Cheng is not alone in his philanthropic mission to open up access to art in China. Last year, Chinese-Indonesian collector Budi Tek opened the Yuz Museum in a 9,000 m² former aircraft hangar on Shanghai’s West Bund, reworked by architect Sou Fujimoto; and Chinese power couple Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei opened two of their Long Museums in West Bund and Pudong within two years. All focus primarily on Chinese art, although the mix is ​​international. And the boom in building private museums in Shanghai is so rapid that it has been compared to that of New York in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Other cities are close to matching this rate. In the next five years, Beirut will have five new private art museums, designed by architects such as Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Christian de Portzamparc. The first of these, the Aïshti Foundation, belongs to the Lebanese business magnate and great collector Tony Salamé and opens its doors in October on the city’s seafront. Like K11, it will offer art and 17,500 m² of retail under one roof, alongside a rooftop restaurant and bar, all designed by David Adjaye. “Private museums play a key cultural role in emerging markets,” says Salamé. “They establish a dialogue between societies in developing countries like Lebanon and other nations in the region and the West. They are also creating a platform for local artists to showcase their work.

Azerbaijani heiress Aida Mahmudova founded the arts organization Yarat in 2011. “Any city’s arts infrastructure should offer a variety of experiences to engage a wide audience,” she says. Last March, Yarat opened its first permanent space in Baku in a former Soviet-era naval headquarters with the intention of exhibiting works by artists from the Caucasus and Central Asia. “One of Yarat’s goals is to complement Azerbaijan’s national museums by providing alternative viewpoints,” she adds. Over the past three years, Yarat has commissioned over 80 projects in Baku and led to educational programs and collaborations with museums and institutions in Azerbaijan.

There is a caveat when it comes to private museums; Sometimes it can be difficult to draw the line between vanity and true philanthropy, between an individual’s whim and the greater good. Recruiting curators, creating strong educational programs and, of course, commissioning quality art are essential if a private museum is to generate real social change and stand the test of time. As Cheng explains, “Our competitors are trying to follow suit, but our model is not easy to copy. The hardware is easy, but you need the software – i.e. good content; quality exhibitions and support programs, such as seminars, workshops and forums, to make it all work. Without solid roots, these private foundations are little more than houses of cards. “We are seeing a mixed ecology where private museums become as important, if not more, than public museums,” says Dodd. “For better or for worse, the privatization of museums is a reality.”

As featured in the May 2015 (W*194) issue of Wallpaper*