The benefits and grey areas of borrowing from the private sector

This paper was originally presented by Jenny Judova at the ‘Get what you give? The value and benefits of proactively lending collections’ conference at The British Museum 31/08/2017

Introduction to Vastari

Vastari is different from other speakers here, and the way we fit into the museum and the art sectors is slightly disruptive. So it’s worth to start with an introduction.

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Vastari is essentially a museum matchmaker

We have two platforms Vastari Collections which allows curators to browse through objects from private collections which are available for exhibition loans.

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The second platform is Vastari Exhibitions which is a listing and discovery platform for traveling exhibitions, if you are a museum with a touring program or a collector who is considering to tour their collection Vastari is the place where you can find each other.

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So why are we different. Our main differentiator is that we do not broker. We created a safe space where museums and the private sector can meet and begin working together. Our job is to maintain that non-partisan space, to help and to educate. Not to broker or to take commissions.

As a disclosure, I should now add how we actually make money and that is via membership fees. Vastari Collections is free for accredited museums to use, however collectors have to pay to add their collection to the platform. Vastari Exhibitions is free to browse through, but if you want to list an exhibition available for a loan you have to pay a membership fee.  

This transparency of where the money comes from, and the fact that we do not insist on participating in negotiations actually puts us in a privileged position where many people and institutions share information with us, and we get to analyze that an independent third party and share insights about the whole landscape with them.   

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How do the private and the public sectors work together?

There are different ways of how the private and public sectors work together when a museums borrow work from the private sector. In our experience, the model and motivation are often defined by where the work comes from and who owns it.

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First scenario: borrowing directly from the artist or a gallery that represents the artist

In our experience, the motivation for both the artist and the gallery to work with a museum is marketing and reputation building. The artist gets the mark of approval from a public institution as does the gallery which often contributes to an increase in prices for the artist and leads to sales.

Usually, if it’s a solo show the gallery representing the artist will often volunteer to cover the catalog or the shipping costs or contribute to the exhibition in some financial way. Of course, it’s a give and take relationship so the expectations are usually that the gallery is allowed to sell the works that are participating in the show to their clients after the end of the show.  

What I found is that in Europe and UK the museum/commercial gallery relationship thought does involve money, is not completely dependent on finances, and often museums completely bypass the gallery to work only with the artist. In America where public funding is scarce, the private gallery is sometimes seen as a funding body.

As an example of this a year ago we spoke with a director of one of the major institutions on the East Coast of USA. She was incredibly frank about her institution’s relationships with commercial galleries. If her curators decide to organize an exhibition by an artist who has gallery representation the museum comes knocking on the galleries door asking the commercial gallery to help fund the exhibition.

Second scenario: Loaning work from a secondary market gallery aka dealer.

In our experience dealers understand the importance of working with museums and loaning to museums yet they rarely proactively go searching for museums to loan work to. If a museum approaches a secondary market gallery they loan one or a handful of pieces, sometimes this is done a bit begrudgingly because that can potentially block the sale of the work.

Dealer’s own most of their stock, some they will have consigned from collectors. All of it they want to sell. Loaning stock to museums means that they cannot sell the pieces. Also, a dealers stock is finite they have to sell work to have money to buy new stock, they do not have the luxury of the primary art market galleries who have renewable stock as long as their artists work away in their studios.   

Also, dealers will be amongst the first to argue that the belief that an artwork’s price increases after a museum show by 10 to 20 % is not true. Or that the claim seems to have merit when it comes to the blue chip institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Britain, or the Met. But there is no research based evidence that prices increase when it comes to showing work at midsize or small urban and regional museums. In other words, if I lend my medieval cape to a show in a mid size rural museum the price is unlikely to change enough to justify taking the piece off the market.

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Third scenario: borrowing from a private collector

 The collector is an interesting entity. Active collectors effectively operate as dealers in the sense that they will buy works hold them and then resell them. Others operate as marketers, in that they have close relationships with the artists and their aim is to promote the artists and to increase the appreciation of their works. And other times they operate as collecting museums in their own right - collecting work and never selling it on.  

Because collectors have collections they can lend a single work or a whole collection. Most of what will be discussed can apply to both scenarios.

In our experience, if a collector is loaning one work or the whole collection it usually comes down to one of the following reasons:

  1. Genuine philanthropy. The collector really believes that the world needs to have access to the work. It’s the passion of sharing work with the general public as well as with the academic and research public. We found that what collectors value most is not just museum recognition of the works, but also the academic research that often goes into individual works and the show, and the chance that gives to collectors to learn more about objects they own.
  2. Promotion of the artist. The collector genuinely believes that the artist should be promoted and their work is of such high quality and importance that it should be shared with the wider public.
  3. Promotion of themselves as collectors. This is usually done by collectors who started foundations and they want to shine a spotlight to their collection. Here the importance is audience engagement and understanding the world of exhibitions before starting a private museum. As well as gaining a reputation of a serious collector with gallerists so that they can be top of the queue when buying sought after pieces.
  4. The collector is assets rich and cash poor, placing work in a museum means that they do not need to worry about insurance, conservation, and storage fees. This scenario often happens with collectors who inherited their collections.

These are the motivations we experienced: philanthropy, artist promotion, self-promotion, or saving money. And yet when the subject of loaning from collectors arises many think about the speculative collector who just wants to flip their collection.  

Loaning Collections

Of course, not just individual objects are borrowed from collectors often it’s the whole collection. In our experience loaning the whole collection usually results in fruitful partnerships such as the Going Public Project, which has just been presented, or The Hoogsteder collection traveling to Polk Art Museum that Vastari facilitated.

However, for every hundred of fruitful partnerships between the museum and a private collection there is one story that sours the idea of collaboration between the private and public bodies.

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One of such infamous examples is China Onwards: The Estella Collection, when a dealer bought works from emerging Chinese artists then showed them in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Denmark) and the Israel Museum. After the second show, the collection was sold. Another example of this was ‘Transforming the Known: Works from the Bert Kreuk Collection’ which was organized in 2013 in Gemeentemuseum (Hague) and 4 months after the show closed 29 of the pieces shown appeared at a selling exhibition in Sotheby’s London.

These stories seem to act a bit as the museum version of the Bogeyman tale. I have to admit that unfortunately the paperwork and contracts for both exhibitions were never made public, I would have very much loved to see if the museum placed any conditions on the sale, and who funded these exhibitions. The way Vastari works with private collections being loaned to museums is similar to how we work with traveling exhibitions. For example, in the case of Polk Art Museum and The Hoogsteder Collection, the collection had a rental fee, the museum paid to host the collection. With that fee comes the promise and the contract clause that works in the exhibition will not be sold after the show ends.

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Conclusions

So what are the lessons and conclusions that can be drawn from all this? And how should museums move forward when working with a private collection?

  1. It’s a give and take relationship if you are loaning works from an artist or a gallery, and the gallery financially contributes to the exhibition, they are likely to want to sell the works.
  2. Everything is an opportunity. Art Collectors genuinely do loan individual works for the love of art, as there is no evidence beyond anecdotes that the price of items actually increases if it’s shown in a small or mid sized museum. If anything lending works from private collections can be a wonderful opportunity for a museum to gain a private donor.
  3. Eyes wide open, define expectations early on, have a contract in place with a cooling off period.
  4. Ask for testimonies and do due diligence. The art world might be all smoke and mirrors but it loves to gossip. Google the collector and collection before you work with them. For example, Bert Kreuk just published a book called ‘Art Flipper’ it’s no surprise that he flipped his collection after a museum show. Even before he literally wrote a book on Art Flipping he already had a reputation for that type of behavior.
  5. Sign up to Vastari it’s free and gives you access to many private collections that come from trusted collectors.

If you need any more help feel free to get in touch with Jenny at jenny@vastari.com