At the Western end of a meandering Hong Kong road, the eye is undeniably drawn to a meticulously renovated building, tucked between trinket sellers, ubiquitous antique stores and herbal medicine shops.
At the unadorned entrance, we question: is it an exclusive hotel? A beautiful residential creation? Neither. This is the four-storey Liang Yi Museum – a private museum that houses not one, but two, of the world’s finest collections of Chinese antiques – and is a prime example of what private wealth can amass. We can’t go in because you need to pre-book and pay HK$200 (about AUD$36), which is what thousands have done since it opened in 2014.
Inside, tycoon Peter Fung displays his works in white-walled rooms, hushed and cool, a space that Wallpaper Magazine described as a “refuge” from the frantic streets. The collection’s seriousness is a reflection of his obsessive attention to detail. The New York Times said “eccentric” Mr Fung – who named the gallery after his two daughters – “(is) so particular in his collecting tastes that he has been known to chase a single chair through the antique market for years, just so it could be re-joined with its matching partner”.
Yet Mr Fung’s vision is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the recent global rise of the private museum, much of it in China (so much so that it has become known as the “museumification of China”). Reports say there are about 100 opening there per year, many of them private.
This shift to private museums is similarly reverberating around the world, including Australia, with lovingly restored or built structures housing exciting art works that lure thousands each year.
It is not a new concept, but one that has taken off in recent years, primarily due to tax breaks in the US, Europe and Australia (since 1999) for those who undertake such ventures. In fact, a Larry’s List private museum report found that 70 per cent of them were founded after 2000.
Yet for Centuries prior, the super rich in Europe and America, often families, poured money into private showings of their collections, the Medici’s, of course, being an obvious starting point.
Much later, the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, Henry Clay Frick and the Gettys. In recent years, however, private newcomers in Europe and the US have surged. These include the Boros Collection in Berlin, opened in 2003 by a couple which lives above it, the Francois Pinault Foundation, Venice and The Brant Foundation Arts Study Centre in Connecticut.
The trend is gaining momentum around the world, partly because of the tax incentives (not in China), but also for altruistic and/or creative aspirations the wealthy can indulge. This can also fill the gap when museums, for example, decide to store a collection instead of display.
It helps there is intrigue for the visitor when it comes to the people bringing private passions to life. Add to this inspiring buildings restored or built and thousands are flocking annually to immerse themselves in these people’s seemingly exotic world.
This is gathering steam whether museum purists like it or not (many don’t, saying they are ego projects, that money cannot buy taste, or they believe museums are the history of mankind itself – not of one family’s whims – and wealthy collectors are not curators).
Yet in Australia, what we do have is being met with enthusiasm.
The Neilson Family’s White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney (which shows Chinese contemporary art and is funded by their own $30 million foundation. Admission is free), the Besen family’s TarraWarra Museum of Contemporary Art in Victoria, former gambler-turned collector David Walsh’s $75 million Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania (MONA), Lyon Housemuseum in Kew, Victoria and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Paddington, Sydney, are all hailed as world-class experiences.
A truly notable mention in New Zealand is Gibbs Farm, a sculpture collection on the Kaipara Harbour started with works collected by Jenny and Alan Gibbs over a space of 30 years.
It seems those involved gain an immense satisfaction from the process. As David Walsh told ABC news in 2014: “Prior to building MONA, I hadn’t done anything for the community to benefit that I could be proud of.”
Yet despite this robust shift to private museums and the ensuing enthusiasm for patronage in Australia, some believe much more could be done to increase similar art patronage – and not just by the very wealthy.
“Private Philanthropy is, to say the least, an underdeveloped idea in Australia,” says Barrister, human rights advocate and art enthusiast Julian Burnside in an online paper, Patronage of the Arts in Australia. “There are some notable exceptions. However, we have no cultural tradition of (this).”
Burnside says the government could start by encouraging Australians to shake off the shackles of thinking art patronage is ‘being elitist’.
When asked if he believes the moderately wealthy should aim to take a creative risk by also becoming patrons of the arts, potentially making the most of the tax breaks, he replied to us at .M Contemporary with an emphatic “yes”.
Others add to this argument that by utilising private money for artistic purposes, public money can be funnelled into other areas of the arts, in turn giving the government excess funds to divvy up more broadly.
Championing the depth of private museums in Australia is the editor of the National Gallery of Victoria Magazine, Margaret Barca, who says great alturism is here; it’s just that it’s a handful.
Maybe for now, anyway.
“Without the restrictions of government boards and public accountability, or the pressing need to make a profit, private museums and galleries can provide an insight into private aesthetics, additional outlets for artists and an extra dimension for the art-going public,” she wrote in an article for the Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Societies.
There is no doubt growth of private museums is a huge cultural shift, as exciting as it is controversial. It seems that a lovingly created private museum will be an exciting concept worth exploring for many years to come.
In fact, in a recent blog, Walsh wrote the simple words (related to his latest extension plans): “MONA is here for good.”
Let’s hope so.
The Future Of The Private Museum
Currently, Australia makes up only 1 per cent of the private museum landscape, according to the first private museum report from Larry’s List, the leading art market knowledge company providing data, research and access to contemporary art collectors.
Yet that could change as the concept becomes more embedded in the national psyche.
Here, a Larry’s List report from January, 2016, outlines the Global Outlook for private museums:
- We will see more dynamic development in regard to new museum setups in regions such as China and the Middle East.
- Private museums will continue to claim a dominant role in the museum landscape since their resources and funding do not rely on public money.
- Visitor numbers of private museums will increase. As the interest of the public in contemporary art increases and museum founders have more financial resources to acquire top artworks, there will be more interest in their exhibitions.
- Social media and a virtual footprint are crucial topics for brand-building and worldwide recognition of the institution.
- In regard to the competition between private museums, we believe that competition does not in the first place rival but often creates that critical mass needed to attract visitors to places such as Berlin, New York, or the West Bund district of Shanghai due to its diverse offerings. This will ultimately attract more visitors and thus be beneficial for all museums.
- Private museums will cooperate more with each other in the future. During recent years, networks have been founded to increase the number of partnerships between private museums. Such cooperative relations will consist of loaning artworks, presenting traveling exhibitions, and also sharing knowledge.