"Baby Don't You Do It"

June 13, 2016

To build or not to build, as Hamlet might have said, is the question facing a new generation of art collectors as they think about what to do with their acquisitions. Many in this group are relatively young and have amassed considerable fortunes and extensive holdings.

Some of the greatest museums in North America are the result of private collections becoming public institutions: think of the Frick or the Morgan Library in New York or the Gardiner in Boston. But these are the exceptions as the greatest museums in the world are usually the result of gifts from deeply philanthropic collectors, like the Rockefellers or the Havermeyers, who elect to support existing institutions rather than building their own.

For those collectors considering building their own museums, the admitted pleasure of perpetuating one’s name or benefitting from available tax relief can be motivating. More important, however, is the degree to which a single owner private museum enables a deeper and more engaged relationship with a collection. Some, like the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, are predicated on a very specific installation program impossible to realize elsewhere; others, like the Frick or the Morgan Library, offer an intimate oasis of contemplation that would be hard to achieve in a larger museum. Many, however, inadvertently end up isolating their holdings from the richer and more nuanced engagement with art history that occurs in museums that embrace multiple collections and perspectives such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the National Gallery of Art in London.

What is rarely taken into account in deliberations about the creation of one’s own museum is the cost of sustaining it over the long term. The initial construction cost of a building is finite, but its maintenance is ongoing and almost always considerably more than expected. The Barnes Foundation almost went bankrupt in the 1990s as its original endowment became insufficient to meet its contemporary needs, and many single collection museums struggle to make ends meet decades after their founders are no longer alive.

In addition to the demands of physical maintenance, funding for programming—which, other than the intrinsic significance of the art itself, is what ultimately makes a collection important—presents a challenge for most single owner collections. To program a collection intelligently and imaginatively—to put it to its best use—requires a staff of highly talented curators and educators. And to sustain programming and staffing generation after generation requires having equally talented directors and a dedicated board of trustees capable of discerning the difference between good and great, and great and outstanding.

Though operating a museum may seem easy in its early stages, it becomes increasingly difficult to continue as the years go by. Larger institutions—regardless of how they are funded—generally have greater resources at their disposal and are better organized for the long term. This may not be an immediate concern for a donor intent on establishing his or her museum, but it should be. Ultimately a collection is an enduring responsibility and a legacy, and that means that it needs to be thought of in terms of the future: decisions in the present will have profound impact in the decades and centuries that follow.  

So for anyone considering building their own museum, Marvin Gaye’s words are worth remembering:

Baby don’t you do it, don’t do it. Don’t you break my heart. Please don’t do it.”

Or as my father-in-law often repeated to anyone who would listen:

Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”


"Baby Don't You Do It" is a 1964 single by American singer Marvin Gaye.