A TFAO Report: Founding a Private Art Museum


Why art museums? Because "Man cannot live by bread alone." Cambridge Dictionary defines the phrase: "...used to say that people need not just food, but also poetry, art. music, etc. to live properly."

"Today we recognize that the finest collection, lovingly preserved, meticulously cataloged, and beautifully presented comes to life only when all kinds of people participate in its enjoyment. For our museums to earn their keep, to justify their existence, they must demonstrate on a daily basis why they matter. The objects in their care must give pleasure to visitors while helping them understand themselves and their world more fully. It is this magic -- the chemical reaction, the powerful epiphany -- that takes place between art and viewer that makes museums worth all the effort." - William J. Hennessey, Director, Chrysler Museum of Art

"Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


This Traditional Fine Arts Organization (TFAO) report is dedicated primarily to private collectors, whether individuals, families or closely-held firms, considering establishing private art museums. In general, these museums are 501(c)(3) non profit organizations founded to provide to the public physical access to art collections of their founders. The report also touches on alternate ways of sharing access to privately-held works.

There are multiple reasons why collectors in the United States may wish to consider establishing private art museums. Owners of significant collections with financial resources and passion to foster appreciation and enjoyment of the visual arts may seek to establish a stand-alone gallery or museum to provide public access to their works.

Collectors may believe that their collections have greater educational value when kept intact and lent in whole, or portions exhibited in rotation, without combination with non-owned artworks. Government-owned or university museums may hesitate in accommodating these wishes. Some collectors considering establishment of a private museum have concerns that, if they give the collection to a public/university museum, at a later date the museum might deaccession or place in storage an unacceptable portion of the gifted collection. The leaders of a private museum have complete control of when and where works will be exhibited. When works are donated to public/university museums, control is often lost either at time of donation or later on due to changes in the scope of collections policy. Eventually board members, executive directors and curators change at public/university museums, with the turnover making possible drift in collections policy.

Major collectors may be uncomfortable with the long term financial security of a public museum. Concerns may include the ability of a public museum to have the financial resources to adequately display a collector's donated works. Collectors may worry that endowment support may be inadequate or government support erratic in turbulent economic times, along with other factors. Such doubts may be a contributing factor in the decision to establish a private museum.

Federal and state tax codes may influence a decision whether or not to donate all or part of a collection to a newly-created non profit entity. Level of deductibility and timing of a gift of artworks to offset other income are considerations. The benefits of offsetting income need to be weighed against government rules for public assess to the collection in the building housing the artworks. Changes in tax codes may influence behavior among collectors considering options of donations to government-owned or university museums versus establishment of private museums.

Even absent a collection, passion combined with vision, leadership, a well thought out mission and hard work may lead to establishment of a gallery or museum. Many communities can benefit from a new venue filling a specific and unmet need.


Examples of private art museums:

The American Museum of Western Art ­ The Anschutz Collection 
The Broad 
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
The Frick Collection
Nelson Museum of the West
Pier 24 Photography 


Strategic planning

The prospective founder is well advised to conduct a strategic planning process before embarking on establishment of a museum. Mission, vision and long term goals of the museum should be determined early on. This is a tedious process, often taking far more energy and time that initially imagined.

Once mission, vision and long term goals are in place, the founder may wish to engage the services of consultants for creation of a business plan, fund development (if further financial resources are desired), and executive search. The Web contains a plethora of examples of consultant RFPs and business plans specific to art museums. Browsing through several examples is entertaining and educational.

A person or group considering establishing a museum should carefully identify its envisioned characteristics. A next step is to gather names of museums that closely correlate with the desired characteristics. The characteristics may then be subjected to comparative analysis. Components may include desired level of visitor volume, amount and type of exhibitions per year, square footage of exhibition floor space, quantity of art objects on display per exhibit, type and quantity of staff, types and volume of ancillary programming, geographic location, etc. Facility options may include rental of a portion of a multi-tenant office building or a building dedicated solely for use by the museum. TFAO's list of museums A-C D-G H-L M-Q R-S T-Z contains hundreds of names of non-profit American art institutions useful for comparative analysis.

One of the collector's goals may be to gain maximum educational benefit to the public within established financial constraints. Cost/benefit calculations are useful based on data from other museums. Fortunately, a large amount of detailed empirical data regarding streams of revenue, costs and performance metrics for individual museums is freely available in the form of IRS Form 990 reports through GuideStar. The Form 990 reports can be downloaded for comparative analysis. An analyst may then use Form 990 data from several museums to create a rough pro forma for the envisioned museum. Data not included in some Form 990s such as visitor traffic, facility square feet, quantity of objects on display per exhibit, etc., may usually be obtained through contact with museums' executive directors.

As noted above, integration of tax planning into the strategic planning process is important in many cases.

The prospective founder may arrive at cost/benefit conclusions based on dividing pro forma annual museum cost of operations by estimated number of visitors. Another calculation would be cost of a typical exhibit divided by estimated quantity of attendees. These calculations may be used within a suite of factors in determining whether to establish a a fixed location or to expose artwork in another fashion. Some consultants preparing feasibility studies and business plans are over-optimistic in estimating visitation counts during initial years of operations. Caution is recommended.


Other options

Apart from establishing a privately-funded museum, a collector can provide public access in other ways, including:

residence tours,
lending artworks to museums or firms organizing exhibitions,
creating an online virtual museum.


Exhibits in residences or closely-held businesses

Many collectors open their homes by appointment for members of the public to tour their collection. Discerning what sectors of the public to admit requires careful planning. Some collectors prefer to limit access to sectors including scholars and members of local art museum support groups such as collectors' councils. Allowing strangers into one's home carries risk of damage and theft, so insurance coverage should be checked regarding those risks. Some collectors retain private curators who conduct interpretive tours on behalf of owners while keeping an eye on the behavior of visitors. Closely-held firms wishing to offer public access to collections in their offices should exercise similar care. Tax factors may also influence policy for public access if artworks become officially owned by a non profit entity.


Loans of artworks

In a Wall Street Journal article from April 4, 2008; Page W1, titled "The Firestorm Over Private Museums, Instead of donating their art, collectors are building private museums -- and roiling the art world," reporter Lauren A.E. Schuker says that "...collectors are forgoing donations and starting foundations that essentially serve as lending libraries, loaning out works to institutions around the world." She cites the case of Eli Broad of Los Angeles, CA, who has maintained a lending-library model since the 1980s. Ms. Schuker says: "Mr. Broad, who made his fortune building SunAmerica and KB Home, says the lending model allows the artworks to get more exposure. 'We created the lending library to show art that would otherwise be in storage,' he says. 'We see ourselves as the guardians of the works during our lifetimes.'" Mr. Broad and his wife eventually founded a museum in Los Angeles in 2015.

For more on the topic of lending portions of collections, TFAO suggests its report Lending Art to Museums for Special Exhibitions


Virtual museums

Collectors can create online "virtual museums" instead of brick-and-mortar facilities. An example is the site for the M. Christine Schwartz Collection, which provides images of paintings in the collection, combined with biographical sketches and essays written by Dr. Wendy Greenhouse concerning the artists. Images provide a magnification feature which allows viewers to see close-up details. The site also contains research suggestions for viewers. Also see:

Chicago Modern, which "represents the artistic culture of Chicago from the 1920s to the 1940s. It was a culture graced with the iconoclastic liberty that life in the modern city afforded."
The Johnson Collection, which presents images and artist biographies relating to a representative cross section of a family's collection focusing on art of the American South. While the Collection is not housed in a dedicated museum, portions of it are displayed in institutions around Spartanburg, SC to afford the public physical access. One facility providing access to a limited number of works is the TJC Gallery.
JLW Collection. Jeri L. Waxenberg Woflson has been collecting works of women artists since 1982. Images of works in her collection are accompanied by biographies of artists who created them.
Terra Foundation for American Art presents its collection online. The Foundation operated a brick-and-mortar museum in Chicago, IL from 1978 to 2004.

Virtual museums may offer enriched information [1] such as brief videos, accompanied by simultaneous transcripts, featuring curators, conservators, collectors, artists and others discussing aspects of single works of art in a collection. Videos will simulate a docent or curator tour experience in a brick and mortar building.

Many artworks are subject to copyright law intended to protect intellectual property rights. Owning an original work of art may not grant to the owner rights for online presentation. For more information please see two articles by Ann Andres: New Law Being Made on Use of Images on the Internet (3/2/00) and Reproduction Rights for Fine Art (4/99).


Related online resources

"Museum Strategic Planning, Part II - Museum Feasibility Study" and "10 Steps to Starting a Museum" by Mark Walhimer, from Museum Planning, LLC. Accessed 9/18.

"Options for Art Exhibit Programs by Religious Institutions," a TFAO article providing information to organizations considering establishing an art exhibit program within their campus.

Planning Successful Museum Building Projects by Walter L. Crimm, Martha Morris, Carole L. Wharton, from Google Books. page 174. Accessed 9/18.

"A Collector's Dream: Creating Your Own Museum as a Legacy," by Paul Sullivan, 9/29/17 in New York Times. Accessed 9/18.

"Starting a Museum: Advice from the Trenches" and other Information published online by the American Alliance of Museums. Accessed 9/18.

"Want an Alternative to Donating Art? Open Your Own Museum" 2017, from Wall Street Journal. Article that reports about options for founding a private museum. Accessed 7/21

"When Your Home Is Also a Museum" 2020, from Wall Street Journal. Article that reports about individuals who operate for profit museums at their residences. Accessed 7/21

A Herrick, Feinstein LLP 2016 article describes hurdles for creating an art museum at a personal residence.

and these videos:

In Search of Culture: Birth of the Museum of Fine Arts [52:21] is a WGBH Forum presentation including lectures by David Dearinger and Hina Hirayama presented December 13, 2007 at the Boston Athenaeum. Both presenters are staff members at the Boston Athenaeum. [As of January, 2014 this video is not available online. Reference to it is retained in the event viewers are able to access it at a later date.]

Inventing Concepts for a New Museum [1:37:25] is a WGBH Forum presentation by Yves Abrioux, professor, English lit, U Paris VIII. On April 18, 2007 the High Museum of Art presented Yves Abrioux, professor of English literature at the University of Paris VIII and the Ecole du Louvre for the past six years. At the time of the presentation he served on the editorial board of TLE and was the writer of many articles and exhibition catalogues, including Ian Hamilton Finlay: a Visual Primer (1992). Abrioux's scholarly work informed his own landscape art, which has appeared in France, Germany and England. In the fall of 2006, Abrioux was a visiting professor at Georgia Tech's School of Literature, Communication and Culture, where he helped to coordinate projects between the High Museum, the MusÎe du Louvre and Georgia Tech. [As of January, 2014 this video is not available online. Reference to it is retained in the event viewers are able to access it at a later date.]

Artist's View of the Future of the Museum [1:10:04 ] is a WGBH Forum presentation by Jane Prophet. On April 4, 2007 the High Museum of Art presented artist Jane Prophet who, at the time of the presentation, worked across disciplines to create internationally acclaimed projects that have broken new ground in art, technology, and science. Her work, which includes large-scale installations, digital print, websites and CD-ROMs, reflects her interest in complexity theory, landscape and artificial life. Among her past projects are the award-winning Website, TechnoSphere, and The Landscape Room, an installation that combines photographs with computer-simulated landscapes. In October 2006, she completed a solo show at Paco das Artes, which coincided with the Sao Paulo Biennale. [As of January, 2014 this video is not available online. Reference to it is retained in the event viewers are able to access it at a later date.]

Selective Attention: Neuroscience and the Art Museum [1:12:09 ] is a WGBH Forum presentation by Barbara Stafford, professor, art history, U Chicago. On March 22, 2007 the High Museum of Art presented Barbara Stafford who, at the time of the presentation, was William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of the University of Chicago's Department of Art History. She discussed the relationship between neuroscience and art museums. Stafford's recent essays focus on how developments in brain science are informing our assumptions about perception, emotion, sensation, and mental imagery. Stafford is the writer of many books, including Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (1991), Artful Science: Enlightenment, Entertainment, and the Eclipse of Visual Education (1994), and Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting (1999). [As of January, 2014 this video is not available online. Reference to it is retained in the event viewers are able to access it at a later date.]



There are several books designed to help persons plan and organize new museums. Here are some titles:

Crafting Effective Mission and Vision Statements by Emil Angelica, 2001 (67 pages)

Managing New Museums: A Guide to Good Practice by Tim Ambrose, HMSO (Edinburgh), 1993 (141 pages)

The Manual of Museum Planning by Gail Dexter Lord and Barry Lord. Published 2000 by Rowman Altamira. 480 pages. ISBN:0742504069. Google Books says: n essential resource for all museum professionals as well as trustees, architects, designers, and government agencies involved with the dynamic world of museums and galleries." Google Books offers an online Limited Preview. (right: front cover, The Manual of Museum Planning. Image courtesy Amazon.com)

Museum Job Descriptions and Organizational Charts by Mary Lister, 1999 (400 pages.) Sample job descriptions for various museum positions and sample charts to show flow of authority.

Organizing Your Museum: The Essentials (American Association of Museums) "Practical information and advice that trustees, volunteers, or staff need to know about starting a museum and successfully managing every stage of its development. This report addresses the questions you will need to consider to realistically assess the museum's chances for success. Included are sample bylaws, mission statements, long-range plans, job descriptions, collections management policies, and readings." - AAM (left: front cover, Organizing Your Museum: The Essentials. Image courtesy Google Books)

Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning, 2nd edition by Gerald George (AltaMira Press / American Association for State & Local History) "For anyone not yet in the museum business, Starting Right will be a revelation. . . . This second edition of a fine introductory handbook answers questions many neophytes will not yet have considered. . . . This is a splendid book, enjoyable enough to take along to Starbucks for a lingering coffee. The chapters are short, and each provided with a useful reading list. The index is thorough, the illustrations relevant. Although the title suggests that the readers will be behind the scenes for the first time, many others will find it constructive."- Museline. Google Books offers an online Limited Preview. (right: front cover, Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning, 2nd edition. Image courtesy Google Books)

Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Practical Guide and Workbook by Michael Allison, 1997 (287 pages)

Strategic Planning Workbook for Nonprofit Organizations by Bryan W. Barry, 1995 (72+ pages). A workbook for developing strategic plans.

Towards a New Museum by Victoria Newhouse. 208 pages. Publisher: Monacelli (March 1, 1998). ISBN-10: 1885254601. ISBN-13: 978-1885254603. Amazon.com Review: "Should art museums be designed to surprise and delight or to instruct and uplift? Should the museum building be a temple of art or an entertainment complex? Architectural historian Victoria Newhouse considers these and other questions about museums in her book Towards a New Museum. Newhouse examines dozens of art museums built during the 1980s and 1990s and describes how the buildings fit into the history of ideas about the proper function of museums. Some museums are like cabinets of curiosities, a hodgepodge of items the collector assembles to delight viewers. Other designers of museums strive to provide a neutral environment that does not distract viewers from the art. However, some architects believe that hanging paintings on white walls in galleries separates the art from its context. Architects and artists have grappled with these ideas and created some stunning and outlandish museums in recent years. Newhouse describes the sinuous, titanium-coated new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the fractured forms of the Fredrick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. She writes about the artist Donald Judd, who bought most of Marfa, Texas, and made it a museum. These are bold and sometimes beautiful museums. Newhouse wisely includes plenty of good pictures and diagrams of each building. In different segments of the book, Newhouse discusses: private museums, museums that function as temples of art, museums devoted to one artist, and museums designed by artists. She also devotes a chapter to the unfortunate impact of museum politics on design. This chapter, "Wings That Don't Fly," illustrates some of the more vivid design disasters in recent history, including the "toilet tank" addition to the Guggenheim in New York. Art historians, architects, and people who are connected to museums will find this book an instructive, thoughtful overview of what's going on with museums today. --Jill Marquis" (text courtesy of Amazon.com)

TFAO invites those who have established and operate museums with their personal financial support to share their experiences with the public in order to provide insight and encouragement to others considering that option. TFAO welcomes readers to enjoy the story of the establishment and evolution of The Irvine Museum in "The Irvine Museum in Perspective"; essay by Jean Stern, from the book A California Woman's Story (8/22/08). The museum has subsequently been renamed The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine.


1. More and more museums are offering a rich online menu of materials to accompany physical exhibits. This is partially to attract younger audiences who seek knowledge onilne. Depending on the quality of their online experience, there may be an inflection point soon when a sizable portion of them will prefer that option over physical visitation. Following is what ChatGPT software (likely crafted by young engineers) had to say in response to somewhat rhetorical questions in March, 2023.



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This report was originally published August, 2011, with most revision September, 2018

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