For many collectors, one of the thrills of collecting art is to share their collection with others. Shanghai-based collector Zheng Hao puts it well when he says that ‘to own a private collection is personal joy, to show a private collection is shared joy’. The pleasure may come in varying degrees from a personal sense of self-actualisation, the social capital attached to the status of collector, as well as the sheer joy of sharing one’s most treasured pieces with others.

The enormous reach of the internet, combined with its ease of access, has offered collectors a wonderful cost effective way to share their artworks with a broader audience. A number of online platforms are dedicated today to showcasing privately owned art. Independent Collectors, a community for collectors of contemporary art, was launched in 2008 to allow its members to exhibit their collections online. It is opened to all art collectors and it is free. With the success of social media, it is not surprising to see collectors making use of the photo-sharing application Instagram to show their art. A number of famous collectors have chosen this platform to share their passion, just like Dasha Zhukova who is married to Roman Abramovich and who founded the Garage Museum in Moscow.

The ability to show, view and also buy art online has largely benefited art by making it more accessible. It remains however that nothing replaces the experience of seing art in person to truly get a sense of its magnitude. On a digital screen, the scale of an artwork can be misconstrued, digital colours don’t always match the original ones, important brush strokes may disappear or details in a photographic work can get lost.

And so, to best showcase their artworks a number of collectors have chosen to establish private museums. A recent research study reported that there exist today 317 privately funded museums around the world, which are primarily dedicated to contemporary art. Of this number, 70% were built after 2000 making this upsurge a recent trend. Given the cost of owning a museum, not only to build it but to operate it, this is the sign of a booming economy and a rapid growth in personal wealth.

The top ranking countries by numbers of private museums are South Korea, the US, Germany, China and Italy. Closer to home, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), which opens next month in Cape Town, will be one of the first and the largest private museum for contemporary art in Africa. Jochen Zeitz, former CEO of Puma and the man behind the collection, has previously established a sculpture garden in Segera, Kenya. There are other plans for a number of private museums that are currently under way in South Africa. Further on the continent, Congolese art collector and businessman Sindika Dokolo, who is married to Isabel dos Santos and who owns over 5000 artworks, plans to open a museum in both Angola and Portugal, while Prince Yemisi Shyllon, reportly Nigeria’s largest private collector, also intends to build his own museum.

So what are the key motivations for collectors to establish their own museum? The sheer pleasure of sharing one’s collection with the public certainly comes first. This sometimes comes with a sense of responsibility too. As Kirsty Cockerill, director of The New Church Museum in Cape Town, puts it, ‘generally the most poignant artworks made by our artists are acquired by private collectors nationally and internationally. These works become removed from active cultural and society engagement and the public is then denied the opportunity to see the very best our country and continent produce’. By establishing their own museum, private collectors ensure these works are available to the public.

A philanthropic commitment to the arts is then a key factor behind the proliferation of privately funded museums. Private museum owners often wish to fill a gap in countries with limited institutional infrastructure or at a time of decreased government funding globally. The New Church Museum for instance was founded by collector Piet Viljoen to make contemporary South African and African art accessible to the public. The satisfaction of seeing one’s collection on display is another motivator. Collectors also have better control of the manner in which their artworks are displayed. The worst scenario for a collector, which in fact happens often, may well be to donate their prized collection to a public museum only for the artworks to be kept in storage and out of the public eye. Another benefit to private museum founders is better access to top artists and top works. Galleries and art dealers are indeed likely to give priority to buyers who have the ability to share their art acquisitions and have them on public display.

But with advantages comes challenges too. While owning an art museum is certainly the pinnacle of a collector’s achievements, it is no easy feat from a financial, curatorial and operational point of view. Privately funded museums often require vast sums of money not only to develop but to operate too. The programme of exhibitions and activities has to be relevant to what the public wants in order to build and attract audiences and without external funding, one needs a watertight strategy to achieve sustainability. Collectors are best prepared by doing some serious ground work ahead and getting professional advice before plunging in what could easily become a bottomless pit of spending.

A number of collectors have come up with forward thinking solutions to this conundrum. For instance, Sylvain Levy, a collector of Chinese contemporary art, has established a virtual museum, the DSL Collection, accessible to all online. Filipino developer and collector Robbie Antonio is looking at capitalizing on the recent boom in private museums to offer prefabricated museums to a wider audience. He has appointed well known architects Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc to create what he calls ‘reproducible museums’, which are structures designed to display art. They can be customized to show painting, sculpture, video and any other mediums. For about 1 million dollars, collectors could own their own museum in as quickly as 6 months and get closer to what artist and collector Damian Hirst famously pronounced: ‘Buy art, build a museum, put your name on it, let people in for free. That’s as close as you can get to immortality’.

© 2020 by Walker Scott.

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