Conference Report: “The Global Power of Private Museums: Arts and Publics – States and Markets”

By Nathalie Okpu

A Report of the International Symposium “The Global Power of Private Museums: Arts and Publics – States and Markets”, at the TU Berlin and the Forum Transregionale Studien on 16–18 November 2017. The conference was organized by the Centre for Art Market Studies (TU Berlin) and Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices (Forum Transregionale Studien). A full program of the event can be found here.

From 16 to 18 November 2017, art historians and humanities scholars gathered at the Technische Universität (TU) and the Forum Transregionale Studien (both Berlin) for the international symposium “The Global Power of Private Museums. Arts and Publics – States and Markets.” Convened by Julia Voss, Dorothee Wimmer, Hannah Baader, and Georges Khalil, in collaboration between the Center for Art Market Studies and the Forum Transregionale Studien, the symposium discussed the backgrounds, mechanisms and impacts of privately-funded art museums in diverse countries and world regions, run by individuals, private foundations, associations or companies, and with publicly-accessible collections.

Based on the observation that the number of private museums has risen dramatically over the past two decades, with more private than public museum spaces existing today, the symposium foregrounded the multiplicity of these actors that now powerfully orchestrate global and local art markets and of museum visitors. Alongside the spectacularly-designed venues (like the Louis Vuitton Museum in Paris or the Zeiss Museum in Cape Town) that draw frequent international attention with their exhibition openings, events and acquisition politics, there are also museum complexes that have a more regional focus, or operate with limited economic power. Others bridge regional and global concerns, needs and ambitions. The majority of newly-founded private museums are located in China, South Korea, the US, and Germany. Others have been established in Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, India, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Palestine, the Russian Federation, and South Africa, among other countries.

The symposium’s discussions, papers, and keynote lectures tackled multiple aspects in the specific systematics of such private art actors. They contrasted  the range of characteristics of private museums, from those with colonial histories on the one hand, to others with the capacity to resist authoritarian regimes on the other. They debated the specific power that private museums  incorporate, including their economic or capitalist ambitions, their authority in defining art, and their practices of representation and misrepresentation.   The discussion problematized the institutional, political, and PR agendas between strengthening democratic processes, destroying and looting cultural heritage, and moving professionally into global economies of mediatized attention, including the commercializing of urban spaces as well as the ability to foster national(ist) collective imaginations.

The international perspectives from various disciplines and professional backgrounds including art historians, curators, and art collectors, accounted for the multi-faceted spectrum of subjects, problems, and questions regarding the role of private museums in global power dynamics. Under the umbrella terms of “private museum” and “global power,” the contributions assessed the diverse reasons for the emergence of such museums and their regional, national, and country-specific differences. The museum’s history as an institution deeply invested in techniques of appropriating and categorizing culture, of purchasing and trading antiquities, linked to the looting and destruction of local heritage, was highlighted through various post-colonial approaches towards the question of how the term of “global power” is to be conceptualized. Taking the whole spectrum of contributions into account, the symposium worked towards a problematization of the institution of private museums, revealing the complicated dynamics in which such actors are implicated – importantly, this also included the claim for a balanced view of their contemporary social and cultural effects, which are not always solely negative but can for example also serve the consolidation of cultural identity in post-conflict regions.

The symposium was opened by a panel discussion with Hannah Baader (Forum Transregionale Studien), Axel Haubrok (Haubrok Stiftung, Berlin), Christiane Lange (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart), and Sonja Mejcher-Atassi (American University of Beirut) discussing the challenges and dynamics of stately, “public” and private museums in a global art world. Moderated by Julia Voss, the panelists revealed pluralistic takes on the meanings of “private museum” and “global power.” Early on, Julia Voss attempted to render the abstract term of “power” more concrete, noting that “we have to talk about money” and pointed to recent examples, such as the sale of the Leonardo DaVinci painting at a record price of 450 million dollars or the opening of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi – an institution that, as Laura Weißmüller wrote, marked a one-billion-dollar death sentence for the public museum.[1] However, the Louvre in Abu Dhabi represented no exception when it came to borrowing works of art, as Christiane Lange mentioned during the discussion. According to her, there were numerous state museums in Berlin consisting almost completely of loans by private art owners. This raised questions about what should happen to private – or public – art collections if their owners passed away. Lange, speaking in her capacity as Director of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, proposed the idea that borrowed private collections should in certain cases then become the property of public museums. When panelist Hannah Baader, head of the program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices, stated how the discussion and understandings of public or private museums as well as their functions and responsibilities have a largely Eurocentric epistemology, the conceptualization of “global power” shifted towards a more post-colonial framework. At the same time, Baader also emphasized the need for examining the opportunities  that private museums offer, given the multitude of social contexts in which they have more or less recently evolved. In her view, this includes the ability to work against authoritarian policy or to help to restore or create cultural identity in post-conflict regions.

From left to right: Julia Voss, Axel Haubrok, Hannah Baader, Sonja Mejcher-Atassi and Christiane Lange. First panel discussion, “The Global Power of Private Museums: Arts and Publics – States and Markets”, TU Berlin, 16 November 2017.

The following discussions were structured into three different sections: section one “Old Fashion – New Branding? The ‘Privatization’ of Art Museums in Europe,” section two “Public-Private Partnerships? Global/ Local Museum Centres,” and section three “Politics and Cultural Properties: Private Museums in Context,” with the final day of the conference taking place at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

Section one was introduced by Julia Voss, who highlighted the panel discussion’s multi-faceted approaches, manifested through the numerous definitions of the notion of “private museum”, and pointed to the key ambivalences that needed to be tackled, e.g. the function of private museums between being a “money making machine” and a possibility of expressing cultural identity and individuality. Theorizing the term “global power” as a concept, Voss suggested towards its potential to redefine both the canon of modernism as well as the writing of art history through museums. She ended her introduction highlighting again the crucial questions of who the audience is and what the obligations of public and private museums in contemporary European societies are.

Anja Grebe (Donau Universität Krems) subsequently presented two museum case studies from Germany and Austria, discussing the “Politics of Public-Private Partnerships.” She put the spotlight on Austrian private art collector Karlheinz Essl and illustrated how his love for contemporary art and his agenda of acting on behalf of artists resulted in the opening of his private museum near Vienna in 1990. The fate of this museum, closed after the owner’s bankruptcy, foregrounded the problematics of privately owned institutions being dependent on their owners’ economic situation while simultaneously benefiting from the state by tax money financing.

Turning to the notion of branding, Ronit Milanos’ (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) paper on “The Power of the Brand: The Economic Instrumentality of Private Museums in France and Ukraine,” provided a telling example on the transformational power of money and marketing strategies in museums. Milano stressed that apart from money, art had always carried the allure of intellectualism, a claim which she underlined using the example of the fashion industry, and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in specific. She discussed the role of famous artists such as Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson and Takeshi Murakami as branding tools, suggesting the transformation of the artist into a creative businessman on the one hand, and a shift of the commercial space into a museum on the other. Equivalently, the commercial enterprise transformed into a creative enterprise with contemporary architecture and redesigned stores insinuating semi-art galleries, giving the notion of philanthropy an alleged new twist.

Waltraud M. Bayer’s (Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg) paper on “Private Art Museums in Post-Soviet Russia” and  Kathryn Brown’s (Loughborough University) talk about “The Privatization of Public Museum Culture and the Future of Art History” discussed the power of private collectors in the making of culture. While Bayer explained how the rise of art foundations and private museums in Moscow  led to success stories such as the Garage Museum, opened in 2015, and the first Triennial of Contemporary Art in 2017, Brown elaborated on the question of what kind and extent of power could be granted to private collectors. Recent controversies regarding the Venice Biennale, and how the Galeries Lafayettes, as a private company, invested in the Venetian art show became a subject of discussion. As a patron providing significant funds, the company took part in choosing the nations represented at the Biennale, and thus reveals how financial power is directly transformed into curating power, deciding over the presence and absence of cultural entities in international art discourses. Brown then shifted from underlining how the financial power of private institutions resulted in influencing the writing of art history to describing the risks this holds for society: Whilst public museums connected to the state had, in her view, accepted the responsibility to address problematic topics, this was not true for private museums – a problem that could result in private voices marginalizing, if not erasing, non-commercial narratives.

This set of problems was further elaborated in sections two and three, which shifted the focus beyond Europe, to China, India, Palestine, and Syria. In section two, Oscar Salemink’s (University of Copenhagen) paper “City of Art: State, Market, Museums and the Urban Reinvention of Shanghai” examined how a “romanticized colonial nostalgia” influenced the development of the city of Shanghai. Turning it from a city with no major art academy into a city that focused “so much on filling itself up with art work,” it became the “power station of art”, as Salemink put it. The aspired transformation into a global city of transnational capital was flanked by institutions such as the West Bund Art Centre and Culture & Art Pilot Zone. These processes of commercialization, based on a dichotomy of nostalgia and imagination of the future nation, enabled the local public to access and appreciate art, and at the same time communicated to the non-local public that, as Salemink noted, “Chinese art is just as good as all the other art.” The peak of that transition, according to him, was marked by the latest Shanghai Biennale in 2016.

A similar tension in regard to the relationship between local public and post-independence established state or private institutions for art was illustrated in Deepti Mulgund’s (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) highly revealing paper “To the Nation, to the World? Two Moments of Museum-Making in India.” Emphasizing the emergence of the museum in India as a part of British colonialism, Mulgund referred to Hannah Baader’s introductory comment to theorize the term and institution of the museum critically. Based on a post-colonial approach, Mulgund provided significant insights into why state-funded institutions in India, such as the National Gallery of Modern Art (1954), were not perceived well by the local public. According to her, this problem represented an opportunity for private collectors to convince a passive public to get involved in art institutions by creating strategies of resurrecting these empty “art mausoleums”. Mulgund’s substantial considerations revealed that the colonial connotations of museums do not always allow a non-conflicted access to and encounter with the art works that are being presented in its exhibition spaces.

“The Global Power of Private Museums: Arts and Publics – States and Markets”, Forum Transregionale Studien, 18 November 2017.

Section three of the conference, “Politics and Cultural Properties: Private Museums in Context,” further problematized the notion of the museum as being a European concept. Analyzing the visibility and the actual audience of the Palestinian Museum opened in 2016, Reema Salha Fadda’s (University of Oxford) talk, “Negotiating the Political Economy of Cultural Production in Palestine,” raised the question of how effectively a nation can narrate its cultural identity at home or abroad. Fadda focused on the problem of the political arena in failing to mobilize enough funding for the Palestinian Museum, and thus making its commercialization a necessity. Innovative branding became the strategy to frame the museum as a “world-class Palestinian museum” in order to receive broad attention from the media and the art world – and to establish incoming resources through it. Fadda ended her presentation by questioning the role of the political in contemporary art today and by offering the proposition of a unified cultural policy to make institutions accessible to those who have less, and thus help fill the “cultural identity void” in all sectors instead of creating “processes of transnational culture brokering.” This seemed specifically urgent in regard to the situation of the local public of the Palestinian Museum who, due to Israeli check points, were rarely able to access the newly-built cultural platform to see works from within their own culture on display.

Stephennie Mulder’s (University of Texas, Austin) paper, “Some Remarks on Private and Public Art Crime and Trade in Times of War,” examined a different notion of “global power.” She shifted the discussion to Syria and its countless archaeological sites. The country reveals a long history of continuous occupation, representing a unique place within the repertoire of global heritage. Given that objects from Syria have been collected globally by both private collectors and public museums, the spotlight was put on the problem of trade and purchase of antiquities, which is closely linked to the looting and destruction of cultural heritage. Mulder problematized the prominent role of auction houses in the trade of looted objects as they easily accept falsified provenance documents and rarely face prosecution. She stressed that safeguarding heritage locally through different programs such as SHOSI is beneficial for the respective countries. At the same time, Mulder proposed several opportunities for the public museum to act in this realm, e.g. by offering a full record of the conservation of objects, embracing open provenance strategies, tracking the movement of artworks across the globe over time, and teaching that provenance matters as well as that cultural objects are part of identity. With this, she criticized  the tendency of private museums to avoid difficult but relevant activities and topics, such as provenance research, the proper conservation of objects and education for the public.

Eventually, Wendy Shaw’s (Freie Universität Berlin) keynote lecture, “Privatizing the Republic: Museums, Markets, and Global Ambitions in Contemporary Turkey,” turned towards the essential problem of representation and misrepresentation in museums. Shaw presented a case study in which she examined the history of exhibiting Islamic art in the context of colonial settings and of national power in Turkey. Looking at different exhibition practices and their uncritical display of Islamic art, she assessed the role of museums in reproducing stereotypical notions of Islamic art perpetuating the separation between an “Islamic world” and the so-called “West.”

The organizers’ endeavor toassess private museums through the lens of their global power highlighted the very ambivalent histories and current dynamics of such actors for their local, regional, and international socio-cultural environments. The symposium worked towards a substantial problematization of a multi-faceted global phenomenon through local case studies. It accounted for the question of how to reconcile commercialized systems of private-museum-making as a global trend with the heterogeneous phenomena on the ground in locally specific-contexts, and thus framing a combined, yet uneven, dynamic, incorporating both new chances and problems for local and global publics. The accepted definition of what “global power” appeared to materialize was commonly found in the capacity of private museums as money-making and branding machines, slowly but steadily shifting the global art world to a global art market, in which branding and financial potentials turn private businessmen into artist-like figures.

In line with this tendency are Angela M. H. Schuster’s remarks in her “Letter from Paris – A Mercurial Market,” in which she reports about a symposium that took place in Paris in June 2017. It was convened by Suzanne Pagé, the curator of the very same Louis Vuitton Foundation that was critically examined during this symposium,  five months later in Berlin. This very fact shows that the private sector itself might be one step ahead in examining the relationship between private and public museums, using this to its own advantage. Schuster notes: “Capitalizing on the intellectual horsepower passing through the city en route to Art Basel, FLV curator Suzanne Pagé organized a trio of panel discussions that focused on the philosophical differences between public and private museums; the players shaping the future of art history; and the disruptive effect of the white-hot market for postwar and contemporary art. It was clear from the varied presentations and the repartee they prompted that the current machinations of the postwar and contemporary art market have come to pervade nearly every aspect of the art world.”[2] Through its transregional approach, Berlin has revealed to what extent this tendency has become an encompassing reality, and where and how it encounters negotiation, challenge, and resistance.


[1] Weißmüller, Laura. “Der Louvre Abu Dhabi wäscht die Kunst rein”, sueddeutsche.de, November 11, 2017. [http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/louvre-abu-dhabi-das-weltmuseum-als-gebautes-moralisches-fragezeichen-1.3743862#redirectedFromLandingpage] Accessed 02/10/2018.

[2] Schuster, Angela M.H. “Letter from Paris – A Mercurial Market”, BLOUIN ARTINFO, January 02, 2018. [http://ende.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/2750945/letter-from-paris-a-mercurial-market] Accessed 02/08/18.


Nathalie Okpu studies art history, cultural studies, and sociology at the Technische Universität Berlin and holds a degree in communications design. Since Fall 2017, she has been a student assistant for the research cluster, “Translocations: Historical Enquiries into the Displacement of Cultural Assets”, at the Technische Universität Berlin.


Citation: Nathalie Okpu, Conference Report: “The Global Power of Private Museums. Arts and Publics – States and Markets”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.04.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18362.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

Das könnte Dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.