The museum includes a new area called the Public Art Depot. According to their website, the Depot is an open storage facility, so that works not on view in the museum can be seen by the public. But – not just works from the museum’s collection will be featured. Instead the museum intends to rent space in the Depot to private collectors, to house and exhibit their collections on a for-profit basis. The Museum is owned by the city of Rotterdam; I could not find any mention on the museum website if the museum is formally considered a non-profit. As Gareth Harris reported in the Art Newspaper, “[f]or an additional fee, the museum will facilitate loans, produce condition reports and provide other collection management services. Visitors will be able to tour the museum’s collection, as well as the private ones, but only with collectors’ approval.”
This is a strange plan for most museums; it smacks of corporate synergy. Museums are primarily educational institutions. They have dealings with the business world, but these are at times in conflict with the educational mission. A museum should not help collectors boost the value of their collections, either for monetary gain (on the collector’s part) or in the hope of getting a large gift (on the museum’s part). Over 10% of the Public Art Depot, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018, would be rented to private collections. Can you see the conflict? “Oh, I keep most of my collection with the Museum. They take good care of it, you know…” The cachet of having your collection cheek-by-jowl with collections already deemed museum-worthy is considerable. It’s bad enough when museums devote exhibitions to wealthy collectors (*cough* Cosby *cough*) but to store and even conduct tours – with the collector’s approval, of course – is a dangerous precedent.
A second quote from Mr. Harris: “The museum’s director, Sjarel Ex, says he has already spoken to more than 60 European collectors about the project and six have signed up. Discussions are also under way with customs officials about launching a freeport inside the depot.” A freeport is a zone with limited customs requirements and/or fees – Wikipedia definition here. So the museum would work to facilitate the importing of art for private collectors – “wealthy” collectors, as the Art Newspaper somewhat redundantly notes. Any collector with enough money to rent space and services from a museum is going to be wealthy. Over 60 European collectors have expressed interest already. Concerns about the weakening of the boundary between public and private collections, a border often breached in the art world, were apparently not enough to stop this project. The storage facility was necessary, and private money will help it to operate. Either way the ethical grey area has grown a little bit larger, a little bit more dense.