The crazy scale of the US’s benefactor-driven museum boom

  • 2016-04-05
  • Quartz

Museums in the US are growing rapidly—and so is the money at stake.

They spent nearly $5 billion between 2007 and 2014, according to the Art Newspaper. The publication’s study of 75 museums across 38 countries found that, when it came to building new wings and galleries, the US spent more than all the 37 other countries combined.

The boom is all the more spectacular as it came amid the worst recession since the Great Depression.

American museum directors claim their institutions need to physically expand for two main reasons: to have enough room to store and show their absurdly large collections, and to attract new gifts from donors. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art was already planning a 400,000-sq. ft space a year before it completed a 45,000-sq. ft hall in 2010 designed by Renzo Piano, the architect of at least 25 museums and extensions. The new space is due to open in 2023—and a $500-million gift to Lacma is dependent on it opening.

“If there isn’t room to show these works, you are hamstrung when you want to make the case to a private collector that a particular object would have a suitable home in the museum,” Neal Benezra, the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—whose new $305-million extension opens next month—told the Art Newspaper, which noted in its report that “patrons are also more likely to stump up for a splashy expansion than for a lower-profile renovation or acquisition.”

Wealthy patrons—on whom US museums rely for money, rather than the government as many other countries’ museums do—are also more likely to donate to a museum, if it’s making high-profile moves.

In addition, these individuals are more likely to give huge flamboyant sums than smaller gifts, because the former allows them to show off their name on a glitzy new wing, while the latter may go utterly noticed in the news. That’s largely why US museums have seen multi-billion-dollar growth in recession-era times: the uber-rich are relatively unaffected by economic trends, and they have an image to keep up.