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Most of the art that hangs in American museums came as gifts from private collectors. Since the 19th century, collectors such as J.P. Morgan, Solomon Guggenheim, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and generations of Rockefellers have donated to museums or built their own. And a big part of a museum director's job is cultivating people who will eventually give the museum their art.
But as Kate Taylor reports, that task has gotten more complicated.
KATE TAYLOR: Think of it this way: People build art collections partly as a kind of self-expression. Whether they collect Renaissance drawings or African masks or big, shiny balloon animals by Jeff Koons, whatever it is means something to them. So when collectors think about donating their treasures, they don't do it lightly. And recently, it seems, they've gotten even pickier.
Mr. DON FISHER (Founder, The Gap): You want to show your own art. Otherwise, what do you do with it? You got to sell it or you give it away and people leave it in the basement. I don't want to have our art in the basement.
TAYLOR: That's Gap founder Don Fisher from an online interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. He was explaining why he wanted to build his own museum, rather than give his collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Mr. FISHER: I have such a big collection. For them to show it all the time and for me to have any kind of control over it was not what they wanted.
TAYLOR: So Fisher proposed building a museum in a national park in the city, but that idea ran into opposition from local activists. So last summer, while he was battling cancer, Fisher dropped the plan and started talking with SFMoMA.
Just two days before Fisher died, the museum announced that he and his wife, Doris, had agreed to lend their collection for 25 years. The museum is going to build a new wing, with the Fisher family making a donation both towards the construction and towards the museum's endowment.
SFMoMA's director, Neal Benezra, acknowledges that the arrangement is unusual since the museum won't own the art outright. But he says curators will get to treat it pretty much as if they did.
Mr. NEAL BENEZRA (Director, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art): We will manage it, we will oversee it, we'll conserve it, exhibit it, educate the public about it, in just the same way we do our own collection.
TAYLOR: The feeling in the art world seems to be that SFMoMA made a pretty good deal. But it doesn't always work out that way. Several years ago, billionaire Eli Broad gave the Los Angeles County Museum of Art $56 million to build a new building. As part of the deal, Broad got to choose the architect and the building was named after him.
LACMA hoped that in the long run, Broad would donate the artwork to fill it.
Mr. ELI BROAD: We've actually interviewed five architects privately for this site, and we've now made a final selection.
TAYLOR: Eli Broad is not talking about the LACMA museum designed by Renzo Piano. He's talking about a new museum he's now planning to build to show his collection, which he did not donate to LACMA. His new museum will be run by a foundation that Broad had already set up to loan artwork to museums.
Mr. BROAD: We will lend it to any museum, and they can keep it for as long as they want it, as long as they have it on their walls displayed to the public.
TAYLOR: Broad is planning to leave his foundation with a $200 million endowment, almost twice the size of LACMA's. And given the high cost of buying, storing and insuring art these days, Broad thinks that borrowing, rather than owning art, might be the way of the future for museums.
Mr. BROAD: We're going to bear the burden of insurance. We're going to bear the burden of conservation. So we're really relieving museums of those responsibilities and those costs.
TAYLOR: For LACMA, being stuck with a building named after Broad while the collector plans a competing museum across town has been a little embarrassing. But Max Anderson says LACMA is not alone in making compromises in order to woo a collector who will pay for a new building or a crowd-pleasing show.
Mr. MAX ANDERSON (Director, Indianapolis Museum of Art): When do you draw a line around what you're not doing in order to make room for something that's easier to stage, not doing scholarship, not doing controversial exhibitions, not doing exhibitions which aren't guaranteed to have commercial success?
TAYLOR: Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is concerned about developments like those at the New Museum in New York. Last fall, the New Museum announced that it was going to do a series of exhibitions devoted to private collections, starting in February with a collection of the Greek industrialist Dakis Joannou. The exhibition raises a range of thorny issues.
So, here's Erik Ledbetter, the director of ethics at the American Association of Museums, to tell us about his organization's guidelines for what not to do in putting on a show.
Mr. ERIK LEDBETTER (Director of Ethics, American Association of Museums): Make sure that there's no perceived conflict of interest through the relationship with the lender - for example, the lender being on the museum board. Don't take any money from sale of the object after the show. And finally, curatorial control. Make sure the museum keeps authority over the content of the exhibition.
TAYLOR: The New Museum strikes out on two of those three counts. First, Joannou is on the museum's board. And second, instead of the show being curated by one of the museum staff, it's being curated by one of the artists in the collection, Jeff Koons, who's also good friends with Joannou.
The museum's director, Lisa Phillips, defends the show. She says that today, museums have to work with private collectors.
Ms. LISA PHILLIPS (Director, The New Museum): Part of what is feeding into this is the rise over the last 20 years of the private foundation museum and many collectors deciding on their own to open their own facilities and do their own programs, which in some cases are really at a similar level of programming as traditional institutions.
TAYLOR: If that's the case, what's the point of museums having their own collections or their own curatorial staff organizing shows? Maybe in the long run they can just become venues for shows from private collections organized by curators who are paid by the collectors.
But one thing museums, as they exist, are well-equipped to deal with - and private foundations aren't necessarily - is changes in taste.
Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says that some contemporary work will probably end up in the basement and for good reason.
Mr. MICHAEL GOVAN (Director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art): There is a lot of contemporary art in the world. There's a proliferation of collectors of contemporary art. And there isn't enough space in the museums we have to show all of it. So part of it is that time will take its course and cull those works in each era down to a smaller number that the public and art historians consider valuable for the long term.
TAYLOR: That winnowing process isn't something most collectors want to think about. They want to see their taste validated. To that end, they're delighted to see their art in a museum. They just want to know when they can pick it up.
For NPR News, I'm Kate Taylor in New York.
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