Private museums that put the public first

Ernst Beyeler, the late co-founder of the Fondation Beyeler near Basel. Photo: Jürg Ramseier

One of the ways for philanthropists to pull rank in the art world is not just to build an art collection, but to show it in a dedicated, possibly starchitect-designed private museum. Basel is home to two shining examples: the Renzo Piano-designed Fondation Beyeler and the Schaulager, a super (art) store designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the Laurenz Foundation. Such privately-owned, publicly accessible spaces are increasing worldwide—three-quarters of the 236 institutions listed in the BMW Art Guide opened since 2000. At the end of May, the Düsseldorf-based collector Julia Stoschek opened her satellite in Berlin.

Such spaces and Sammlungen get their share of criticism, ranging from being short-lived vanity projects, to getting undeserving tax breaks when public access is limited. US senators have been scrutinising 11 non-profit foundations set up by collectors, including ones on or near their private property. The reality is more nuanced. The best private museums share their collection with a wide public and other institutions. The Julia Stoschek Collection and Sweden’s Moderna Museet work in partnership to organise film and video exhibitions, for example. The Beyeler and Schaulager, among others, organise ambitious exhibitions that are beyond the budget of many publicly-funded galleries. Private museums have also been a boon to the market—this week galleries at Art Basel and its satellite fairs will be hoping to sell to their founders and their curators.