The Rise and Rise of the Private Art Museum, by Georgina Adam. Lund Humphries in association with Sotheby’s Association of Art, 2021.
REVIEWED BY SYD OVERTOOM
When considering where to get one’s foot in the door concerning museum work, private museums are usually not at the top of the list. As individuals interested in working in museums, the private sphere of that world might seem unfamiliar to us and therefore not of interest when it comes to places we want to or are currently working in. However, private museums, according to Georgina Adam in The Rise and Rise of the Private Art Museum, should be just as important as public not-for-profit museums and similar institutions. After reading this book, however, I’m not sure Adam swayed me into that perspective.
Georgina Adam is a well-known journalist and author who has focused on the global art market for years. What this particular book brings to the museum world is a lens into private museums across the world. Adam’s book is also part of a series called “Hot Topics in the Art World”, which are short books that each focus on a particular topic or issue related to the art world. Adam’s book also discusses the pandemic and how that affected, or didn’t affect, private museums versus public ones in terms of financial issues, which I believe is important because the pandemic has changed how many museums function three years into the global trauma. So, in that respect, I think The Rise and Rise of the Private Art Museum is a key narrative for emerging professionals to read.
On the other hand though, Adam’s book tries to show both sides of the story, and at least for me, it didn’t work well for her argument. For example, in Chapter 2 “The Founders and Their Motivations,” Adam tries to show all of the main motivations in a “bright side” perspective. Whether it is pure wealth, the ‘Bilbao effect’ where private museums reinvigorate the local economy after being built, and/or not wanting to give up their collections to public institutions out of fear that their pieces “’will disappear over time’” (36), Adam highlights these motivations and doesn’t go into any criticism about these specific main motivations. Then, she mentions a “dark side”, which is boiled down to private art collectors expressing that they have the space and will build grand museums for artists to get discounts and tax breaks, even if they aren’t actually building a museum. Should that be considered the only problematic issue concerning these collectors’ motivations? My heaviest critique of this particular chapter is how public museums were scorned for having boundaries and not being able to display every piece of donated work forever, which seemed to be the main turnoff for these private collectors. If anything, collectors should be ecstatic when a museum finds a collection or pieces of their collection fitting for the museum because those pieces will still be cared for so long as the museum is in operation even when not out on exhibit.
The chapter that readers will perhaps find most shocking out of the six in this book is Chapter 4 “The Proliferation of Private Museums in China” because of the sheer numbers. I was wary of this chapter because Adam is a white woman criticizing China, and in this chapter, she seemed to be less wishy-washy in her criticisms than previous chapters. I found myself inclined to take her views on the particular institutions with a grain of salt. However, the statistics were astounding. In 2017, China had about 1,710 private museums across the nation, with about 200 to 300 focused on contemporary art, the focus of this book (59). As of November 2019, that number is now supposedly up in the 800s, and there might be more, but I could not find a more recent statistic. I found this chapter interesting, but I do think that because Adam didn’t negatively critique the European, American, and non-Chinese East and Southeast Asian private institutions as heavily, this chapter felt like an excuse to openly critique China as a Western author and journalist just because she had the power and influence to do so. This chapter also didn’t contribute to her argument of “private museums should be seen as important” because of her negative view.
One of Adam’s strongest points in The Rise and Rise of the Private Art Museum was writing an accessible book by not using too many museum studies related terms, and defining the ones that were. Her other strong point was bringing in how public museums are suffering financially compared to private museums. While this is specifically about private art museums, there are other museums in the private sector that also show that wealth discrepancy. However, Adam’s main argument is that private museums should be seen as just as important as public institutions, and she didn’t argue it well in any of the chapters. After reading this book, I still don’t see the reason why the United States, for example, needs private art museums. Should we not focus on getting the government at different levels to actively fund the public institutions? In other nations it is a different story, but at least in the U.S. the public museums should be taken care of first and foremost since those are where many of us will likely be working, and where many of us have gone to in the past as visitors. If you would like to give this book a read, I think it brings up important points concerning the Covid-19 pandemic, and you will learn more about the private museum world, but finding a book that dives deeper into the issues Adam brings up might be a good idea as well.
Syd Overtoom (he/him/they/them) is a first year MA student in the Museum Studies Program at IUPUI with a great interest in education.