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With the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation opening a new contemporary art museum in Los Angeles September 20, to be called The Broad, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art about to move into its new Rem Koolhaas building in Moscow this month, and the unquestionable success of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Something new is happening. What is causing this explosion of private art museums?

Wondering what drives people to build monumental private art museums, we visited three contemporary art collections this spring, all which are housed in giant museum-like structures in Miami. All are privately funded and open to the public. What makes these collectors want to spend huge amounts of money to provide the public a view of their collections?

We assumed it was a tax thing, but extensive research told us we were wrong.

One would need to consult a tax professional to understand the US tax code, but some facts need to be mentioned here. In the US, if your nonprofit organization is operated exclusively for educational purposes, among other reasons, you are deemed to have 501(c)(3) status, and the organization is exempt from Federal income tax. Two of the three collections we visited have this status. All three maintain extensive educational programs, as you will read below, and therefore are entitled to this status.

There is a much talked about tax break called the 1031 swap which is named for Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code, which allows taxpayers to defer capital gains tax if they sell income, investment, or business property and replace it with like-property. It is being examined currently by the Obama administration, according to Graham Bowley in an article in the April 27, 2015, New York Times, because it was intended to help farmers in the 1920’s and is now being used by investors. Katya Kazakina’s article in Bloomberg Business refines this definition, “To qualify, art has to be for investment, not pleasure.” Bowley quotes Judd B. Grossman, a lawyer who specializes in art cases, the 1031 swap’s “growth is tied to art being recognized as another asset class and … it should be treated as such.” All of the literature about the three Miami collections clearly states that they seldom de-accession any of their art, so this tax break is not a motivation for amassing their huge collections.

They have another motivation, a higher call.

The de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space is located on Northeast 41st Street near the new design district in Miami. Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz shared their collection in their home for twenty-five years until 2009, when they completed the renovation of their current location to “provide education and awareness in the visual arts.” Educational programs centered around the presentation of contemporary art include workshops, internships, tours, scholarships, and student travel, as well as working with the local school system to teach young people about the creative process. Miami artists are invited to make proposals for site-specific installations, and subsequent exhibits are sponsored, encouraging emerging artists to expand their creativity on new levels.

From the street, the large three-story building quietly presents itself as a museum but appears closed with its frosted glass windows facing the street. We had done our homework and knew that we were presenting ourselves on a day and at an hour that it was published to be open, but we hadn’t made an appointment.

Screen Shot 2015 07 03 at 20.59.152014-15 First Floor view of ‘Beneath the Surface’ at the de la Cruz Collection, courtesy of the de la Cruz Collection

We searched for labels and found informative pamphlets to use. A young man greeted us and told us a bit about the founders, Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, emphasizing the family nature of the Collection, never using the word museum. He had been assigned to show us the part of the collection currently on exhibit, and he stayed with us for our entire visit, politely staying back, allowing us to discuss the art but there if we had questions. Otherwise, we were the only visitors in the building until we reached the third floor gallery, where there was another group with another guide.

The work on exhibit was mostly by American artists, very contemporary, with the earliest work from 1990. Among my favorites were some collaged paintings by Mark Bradford with detail that would be lost in reproduction here, and a gritty work by Glenn Ligon with a seductive quality to its blackness:

Screen Shot 2015 07 03 at 21.03.19Glenn Ligon, Masquerade #4, 2006, (silk screen and coal dust on canvas), 78 x 52 inches, courtesy of the de la Cruz Collection

Some of the work was edgy.

Screen Shot 2015 07 03 at 21.06.05Dana Schutz, Gravity Fanatic, 2005, (oil on canvas), 72 x 78 inches, courtesy of the de la Cruz Collection

There were a few international stars like Peter Doig.

Screen Shot 2015 07 03 at 21.08.14Peter Doig, Rainbow Wheel, 1999, (oil on canvas), 78.25 x 73.25 inches, courtesy of the de la Cruz Collection

There were pamphlets on each floor with brief descriptions of the art including a characterization of the artists’ oeuvre. On the last page of each was printed:

“The de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space is privately owned and funded by Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz. It is not a foundation, is not registered as a 501 (c) (3) under the US internal Revenue Code and does not receive governmental assistance. Admission to all lectures, events and educational programs are free of charge.”

Why would the de la Cruz family want to personally sponsor this grand exhibition space and its worthy educational programs with no tax breaks?

A short drive from the de la Cruz Collection is the Rubell Family Collection on Northwest 29th Street, not far from Miami’s Winwood art district. We made an appointment this time. The listed admission fee was $10, but I don’t remember paying it, perhaps because I bought a catalogue. Like the de la Cruz Collection, the Rubell Collection building was quietly imposing on the outside, not a surprise because it is actually a renovated 45,000 square foot former Drug Enforcement Agency confiscated good facility. This collection’s website uses the word “museum” to describe itself. Like our prior experience, the giant scale of the interior grabbed our attention, and a friendly staff greeted us.

In their 2014 catalogue, we learned that Mera and Don Rubell married in 1964, and started to collect art. In 1994, they created the Contemporary Arts Foundation, listed as a qualified organization by the United States Internal Revenue Service, and made the collection available to the public. I had been to the same building on a private tour over twenty years before and remembered this huge, quiet, minimal work by Carl Andre, although it wasn’t on exhibit this trip:

 graphic1Carl Andre, Forty-third Copper Cardinal, Bern, 1975, (copper, 43 units), each .25 x 19.5 x 19.5 inches, acquired in 1992, courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection.

Still, we were unprepared for the enormity, the monumentality, of what had been built up in the interim. As of 2014, the Rubell Family owned 6,800 works of art from 832 artists. The collection is contemporary, international, and encompasses a huge variety of work including both figural and abstract work in all media, sculpture, text, photography and video.

The Rubells pride themselves in their support of many artists, often purchasing work over a period of years, each purchase carefully considered with studio visits, research, and always by family consensus, including their two children. For example, they started collecting Cindy Sherman’s work 32 years ago, and Richard Prince 29 years ago, with over 30 works by each of them in the collection, including Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Still #21, and a more recent addition by Prince, both shown below. Other concentrations include 72 works by Keith Haring, 36 by Aaron Curry, 23 by Kaari Upson. They are always adding newer artists, acquiring between 100 and 200 works of art per year, such as Mark Flood’s interesting acrylics that look like collages of old lace, acquired in 2014, also shown below.

graphic2Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978, (gelatin silver print), ed 2/3, 30 x 40 inches, courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection.

graphic3Richard Prince, New England Nurse, 2002, (inkjet and acrylic on canvas), 79.375 x 52.25 inches, courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection

They own work by all of the big names in contemporary art such as Julian Schnabel, Jenny Holzer, Ai Wei Wei, John Baldessari, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, Ross Bleckner, Cecily Brown, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Damien Hirst, Robert Colescott, Anselm Kiefer, Luc Tuymans, Andy Warhol, El Anatsui, just to name a few. So they have been selecting masterpieces since 1964, and they have a right to be proud of their accomplishment. We can understand why they want people to see their collection.

Seldom, but sometimes, they de-accession work to buy new, whether at auction or through private dealers or through galleries is not stated in their literature.

Their Contemporary Arts Foundation, often thought of as the originator of what is called the “Miami model,” was the first to sponsor a public mission for private contemporary art collections in Miami. It puts together thematic exhibitions with catalogues that are loaned to museums throughout the country. It also sponsors an internship program, lectures, an art loan program, a public research library, and an ongoing partnership with the local school system whereby thousands of children visit the Collection and learn about contemporary art.

Our third stop was the Martin Z. Margulies Collection, whose one story warehouse was a short drive west near the highway. When we made the appointment, the curator, Katherine Hinds, explained to us that they were closed for the summer to change the exhibitions, but we were welcome to come. As we arrived they were moving a Michael Heizer, which was a considerable chore since, typical of his work, this was one of several gigantic rocks.

graphic5Fifteen Year Anniversary Exhibition, courtesy of Collection Martin Z. Margulies, including some of my favorite pieces: Wilhelm Mundt’s Trashstone 412, 2008, (production waste in GRP), 68 x 71 x 126 inches and two of Richard Long’s Stone Circles.

The collection includes 20th and 21st century international art in a variety of media, including some giants of contemporary art. Particularly breathtaking were the seminal works by Willem de Kooning and George Segal, shown below. In the catalogue, Margulies says that he collects art that “speaks to him” especially work concerning the human condition and disenfranchised people.

graphic6Willem de Kooning, Seated Woman, 1969-81, (bronze), 9 feet 5.5 inches x 12 feet 3 inches x 7 feet 10 inches, courtesy of Collection Martin Z. Margulies

PastedGraphic 12George Segal, Depression Bread Line, 1991, (bronze), 9 ft x 12 feet 4 inches x 3 feet, courtesy of Collection Martin Z. Margulies

Exhibitions are installed to create interesting juxtapositions of the work, as you can see in the above photograph. Against the back wall of the exhibit was the Pistoletto shown below, mirroring the exhibition while also creating the illusion of a man working there.

graphic7Michelangelo Pistoletto, Uomo che sale la scala a pioli (Man climbing a ladder), 2008, (silkscreen print on mirror-polished stainless steel), 98.375 x 49.25 inches, courtesy Collection Martin Z. Margulies

When the Katherine Hinds was free, she chatted with us about the collection. She explained that Marty Margulies’ inspiration is sharing and education. With a permanent staff of three, they not only mount annual exhibitions at the Warehouse, they also loan work to a plethora of educational institutions. In addition, they have provided hundreds of programs including guest speakers, seminars, and publications.

We learned that in 1978, as his collection was growing, the large sculptures were installed and open to the public in the Grove Isle Sculpture Garden in Coconut Grove, a suburb of Miami, then moved to the main campus of Florida International University. By 1999, the collection had grown so large that a permanent home was needed. This space was renovated, and the “Margulies Collection at the WAREhOUSE” was born.

Margulies prefers to buy art from galleries but has occasionally bought at auction. When a work of art needs to be de-accessioned, it is sometimes donated to an educational institution. In some cases, art has been sold through a gallery or put up for auction, always with the proceeds going to the Sundari Foundation, Inc., which supports Lotus House, a shelter for homeless women and children.

So all three private museums serve a higher purpose. Motivated by their passion to share their art, the three families support living artists and provide a multitude of educational programs to encourage others to appreciate contemporary art. But they have accomplished far more than that.

Mera Rubell helped start Art Basel Miami in 2001. When that first year was cancelled due to 9/11, the Rubells and the de la Cruzes opened their homes and collections to the people who had planned to come to Miami. The Margulies family has joined them in the role of entertaining dignitaries during the fair. In fact, the social aspect of the fairs has been a major factor in the sustained growth of the Miami venue’s popularity. Since its first fair in 2002, Art Basel Miami has grown into one of the major venues in the art world. The city of Miami, once a sleepy meeting place of North and South America, is the major beneficiary of these private collections. And these three families have become the inspiration for the global explosion of private art museums.