Beyond the Global Boom. Private Art Museums in the 21st Century
Currently, 446 private art museums exist worldwide, established by art collectors to open their collections to the public. The vast majority of these museums have been established in the 21st century, revealing a number of key economic, societal, and cultural inequalities: first of all, they reflect sharply rising income and wealth inequality in many countries across the globe. Given the high costs involved in founding and running a private museum, this rising inequality has fueled the 21st century private museum boom. For instance, 37 founders of private museums appear or have appeared on Forbes’ Annual World’s Billionaires List, meaning that their wealth is or was estimated at 1 billion USD. The average wealth of the museum founders whose wealth we managed to retrieve, is or was 10.8 billion USD. With their museums, they increasingly shape what art can be seen in the public sphere, thereby imposing their private taste on wider audiences.
The museums are also indicative of ongoing gender inequality within the art world: only 15.6% of the museums have been founded by women, while the majority – 57.8% – were opened by men (26.6% of private museums were opened by collector couples).
Moreover, the private museum boom makes ongoing geographic inequalities within the art world visible, in particular between the global north and the global south: private art museums are located across 58 countries, but remain heavily concentrated in a small set of them: 49.9% in Europe, followed by Asia (28.1%), and North America (14.6%). By contrast, the number of private museums remains strikingly low in Latin America and the Caribbean (3.8%), Africa (1.8%), and Oceania (1.8%). On a country level, Germany hosts the most private museums (60), followed by the United States (59) and South Korea (50).
These are some of the key findings of the Beyond the Boom. Private Art Museums in the 21st century, a research report published in March 2023 by a research team at the University of Amsterdam. The report is based on a database of private museums made available through this map.
The report demonstrates that these museums can be seen as generous philanthropic gestures of their founders; after all they make precious private collections accessible to the public. To keep the museums open usually requires either ongoing financial contributions of their founders, or the establishment of a large endowment.
Private museums, however, also bring concrete advantages to their founders. For instance, 48.1% of the museums in our database are named after their founder. Private museums are in that sense an instrument of economic elites to ensure that their names will be remembered – the effectiveness of this strategy is demonstrated by private museums of the past such as the Guggenheim Museums, the Frick Collection in New York or Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands. Moreover, private museum founding comes with reputational benefits: of the 405 founders in our database, 88 (21.8%) have appeared on the list of Top 200 collectors which is annually published by the American visual arts magazine ARTnews. While we know from anecdotal evidence that opening and operating a private museum can come with substantial tax benefits for the founder as well, the generally low degree of transparency when it comes to finances and governance has impeded us to estimate the size of these financial benefits.
The report at the same time suggests that private museums are relatively fragile institutions, as 76 of them have closed already. In 24 more cases, the museum is no longer private but has been transformed or incorporated into a public museum, either subsidized by the government or run by a private art foundation, which is outside of the control of the original founder(s). Private museums mostly close because of financial reasons: with limited access to public funding or difficulties in soliciting donations from other philanthropists, they usually need persistent financial support or a large endowment from their founder. If the museum does indeed need to close, we find that the collection often does not disappear from public view, for instance because it is donated to a public museum or because it remains available for temporary exhibitions.
The 446 private museums in our database come in a wide variety of sizes, ambitions, and levels of professionalism: they can range from private collections exhibited in private residences that are only accessible by appointment, over rather small-scale undertakings with only one or two core staff and limited public accessibility, to large-scale fully-fledged institutions, which are open to the public six or seven days per week and indeed share many characteristics with public museums, such as highly valuable collections, a program of temporary exhibitions, curatorial and conservatory departments, education programmes, cafés or museum shops.
Background and aims of the report
The aim of the report is to present a first systematic overview of the global rise in private art museums which we have seen in the first two decades of the 21st century. While this private museum boom has been the subject of heated debates in the art world, scholarship on the phenomenon has so far been mostly anecdotal. By establishing an overarching database that maps and collects data on today’s private museums of modern and contemporary art, our report lays a more robust basis on which future research into such institutions, their founders, and their consequences for the art world and society more widely may build. The report presents key numbers of private museums worldwide: their founding dates, and geographical distribution across the globe, their size, collection focus, social media presence. The report also presents data on the main characteristics of the founders of museums (e.g. gender, age, business background, etc.) as well as data on museums which have closed and on the reasons for their closure.
In establishing the database, the UvA team cooperated with the private museum research and advisory company LARRY’S LIST, who published the seminal Private Museum Report in 2016. Focusing on the social media presence of private museums as well as on private museums in South Korea, they will publish a companion to our report, the Private Art Museum Report 2023.