The "Old-World" Model of Mega-Giving Will Soon Be History. Can Museums Adapt?

Art museums pining for that huge, transformational collector's gift may want to consider other strategies for expanding their collections and engaging new audiences. That's because, at least according to the New York Times, this "Old World" model of mega-giving is becoming increasingly rare and as anachronistic as the "Old World" itself.

What is the number one culprit behind this paradigm shift? Unpredictable donors.

The psychographic donor profile has changed in recent years. Back in the day, hands-off "Old World" collectors happily handed off their work to a trusted institution and essentially washed their hands of the whole process. Now, however, museums are facing a new era of detail-oriented bankers, hedge fund chieftains, and high-tech moguls. These aren't your grandfather's collectors. 

Some of these "New World" collectors prefer to keep their acquisitions in art storehouses or tax-free zones, lend them out only for short terms, or keep them hanging in their own homes. Others, like billionaire J. Tomilson Hill and industrialist Peter Brant have opted to build their own galleries or "private exhibition spaces."

This latter development is particularly problematic. While these collectors sleep easy knowing that the public can view their holdings based on their minute specifications, this peace of mind comes at a cost for public museums. Not only do major works end up on someone else's wall, these private museums, by taking pieces of the market, exacerbate scarcity, further driving up prices. 

Then there's the segment of collectors who aren't bothered by the fact that their collections end up sitting in a storage space. Megan Fox Kelly, an art adviser who works with high-net-worth individuals, “A lot of my collectors have multiple residences and two I can think of keep some of their art in warehouses,” she said. “We rotate the art, rehanging pieces from time to time.

Do museums really want to hitch their wagons to these kinds of collectors? Do they have any other choice?

If there's anything that the experts in the Times article can agree on, it's that these mega-gifts only come about after years, if not decades, of relentless relationship-building. This takeaway, of course, isn't much of a revelation to anyone who's spent more than five minutes in the curatorial world or has avidly read IP's recent coverage in the visual arts space.

What is interesting about this takeaway is how museums are working to adapt to this new reality by, among other things, re-imagining the role of the curator.

Curators, according to Chicago’s Art Institute's director James Rondeau, are no longer simply the guardians of precious artworks. "It’s an old notion that a curator is buried in a stack of books or researching in isolation," he said. "They have to reach out to the public. That is at the center of our mission — to educate and to form meaningful relationships."

If this expanded job description sounds familiar, it's because it echoes the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's efforts to redefine the role of the curator. 

Back in March, it awarded a five-year, $500,000 gift to the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum to create a new curatorial position. This new curator will, coincidentally enough, "cultivate relationships with collectors and donors to build acquisition funds while soliciting work from collectors and, in some instances, artists themselves."

In related analysis, check out our recent piece "Why Do Some Museums Fail While Others Thrive? Here's One Theory."