In August, 2007, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), representing museum professionals, globally defined a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits … for the purpose of education and enjoyment.” Private museums, differing from public museums, are based on a single collector’s vision, having no one to answer to but the owners. However, if they are non-profit, in the United States, their tax status requires adherence to requirements focusing, as ICOM defines museums, on educational value and public access.
All non-profit private museums enjoy complete curatorial freedom for their owners, and for those they appoint or who succeed them, while reaping the benefits of non-profit tax status.
Two hundred and thirty-six private art museums operate globally according to the BMW Art Guide by Independent Collectors, 80 percent since 2000, including 43 in the United States. In 2008, Senator Orrin Hatch and the Senate Finance Committee questioned tax breaks instituted in 1917 for non-profit museums, focusing on educational value and proximity to the owner’s home. “Recent reports have raised the possibility that some private foundations are operating museums that offer minimal benefit to the public while enabling donors to reap substantial tax advantages,” Hatch wrote. “Such an arrangement would be inconsistent with the letter and intent of the 501(c)(3) tax exemption.” He confirmed that donating artwork to a museum demands the contributor give up the power of ownership. Because he questioned how much public access these museums provided, he confirmed museums enjoying non-profit status exist for the public and must operate as public and educational institutions.
Before 1917, considerably wealthy American industrialists bought European and American art for personal collections. Philanthropists propelled by regard for those laborers on railroads and in mines, who built this country and their fortunes, established museums for public viewing and art appreciation. Albert Barnes bought European work, particularly by Impressionists, assembling a valuable collection at his estate, surrounded by acres of well-tended gardens near Philadelphia. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney amassed her collection of 20th century American art. Guggenheim’s curator, Hilla von Rebay collected European, avant-garde, non-objective art. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. featured Georgia O’Keefe, Renoir and Rothko. New York’s Frick Collection, opened in 1935, displayed Old Master work.
Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum, which opened in 2011 in Arkansas, shows early and late American art. In Los Angeles, Eli and Edythe Broad’s museum opened in 2015, L.A.’s Getty, in 1997. The Rubells’ new museum in Wynwood, opened this year after outgrowing its former Miami home.
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