GUEST ARTICLE: Designing An Exhibition Space For The Family Art Collection

Randall Willette and Holger Mattes 6 October 2016

GUEST ARTICLE: Designing An Exhibition Space For The Family Art Collection

Designing an exhibition space for a family's art collection can be a difficult but rewarding challenge for art lovers with the time and resources. Two experts from the worlds of art investments and architecture examine some of the issues.

As this news service was reminded recently when it assembled art experts and investors to discuss art and financial matters in New York, the area of art investing and collecting is enormously complex but rewarding on a number of levels for those involved in it. A regular writer on such matters, who will be familiar to many readers here, is Randall Willette, founder and managing director of Fine Art Wealth Management. Joining him as author of the following article is Holger Mattes, architect with Erbar Mattes Architects. The article discusses what it sees as the increasing number of wealthy families that are challenging conventional perceptions of public and private exhibition space for their private art collections.

As is always the case, the editors of this publication do not necessarily share all the views expressed but are very pleased to share such expertise with readers and invite responses.

(To see previous articles by Willette, see here and here.)

An increasing number of families are challenging conventional perceptions of public and private space for their private art collections by exploring new relationships between exhibition space, architecture, and art. The phenomenon of art collectors creating an exhibition space to showcase the works they have amassed is not new. However, the past two decades have seen an unprecedented explosion of such spaces. Independent and highly personal, collector museums account for some of the most compelling art-going experiences around the world today.

Equally important, we are seeing works of art displayed in combination with museum scaled residential settings juxtaposing paintings and installations with the family’s living spaces. Together with the family, architects have a challenging mission to design an exhibition space that can become a home for the family collection, highlight selected works of art, serve its exposition needs and reserve a space for the collection's future growth. Due to their passionate nature it has often been the case that a collector falls in love with the architectural project as much as they do with the art works themselves.

This white paper examines the relationship between architecture and art to draw some helpful lessons for designing an exhibition space for a family collection.

Motivations for collecting families
A collection without a public viewing space is just a collection and in order to unite these two elements collecting families are now starting to think in a public direction. Private collections open for public viewings have been growing as a result of an increasing large-scale fashion for collecting. They are representing a new type of museum today, subjectively curated by the collector himself.

While there are a number of factors driving the growth of such spaces globally, for many collecting families they simply want their art works to be seen. Apart from the psychological motivations, the decision by a family to create an exhibition space is often prompted by the desire to keep their art works exposed and available.
Collectors must also consider the extent to which they can provide financially for the preservation of their collections. For example, a private museum is not only expensive to build, but requires a large endowment to preserve it for the future. Ultimately, collecting families feel a responsibility towards their art and want it cared for and preserved.  

Another consideration is the shape that their exhibition space will take – does the family intend to build a permanent memorial or an evolving institution? Ideally, this should be decided early in the collecting process as it helps define the collection's scope. According to Jan T Letowski in his paper entitled Museum-Making: Transition from Private Collection to Public Museum, any collection could potentially survive as either, but collectors should assess the unique benefits and setbacks of each model. For example, a permanent memorial will serve the purpose of immortalising the founder while allowing the public to experience art as the collector intended.

Making a private art collection public has always had an exceptional social and cultural mission as well as a profound impact on the collector’s reputation and social status. Building a private museum can feed the ego of any art collector and making the right choice of an architect is crucial for creating an atmosphere and a legend around the private collection museum.

The dialogue between a collecting family and their architect
A private exhibition space is a life project for a collector with the potential to create a lasting legacy and establish a personal voice beyond the art and architecture world. Designed and positioned in the right way, even a small exhibition space with a frequently changing or permanent quality display can have a major impact.

In a similar way as the best artists keep pushing boundaries in unexpected ways, talented architects will creatively respond to new contexts and design briefs, by applying unique personal design strategies, past experience and research, to propose innovative, surprising solutions. They establish new creative connections to resolve unprecedented architectural tasks. On the other hand, unlike artists, their core occupation is to closely involve and collaborate with clients to share, test and improve these ideas. To embark on an architectural project could be a particularly enriching experience for anyone who already enjoys interacting with artists and wants to find out about the differences in the creative process.

The design of a private exhibition space offers collectors an opportunity to enter a stimulating personal dialogue about relationships between art and architecture. In a collaborative partnership with the architect, and together with other contributing consultants, collectors can enjoy the positive challenges that come with the ambitious creative project to define how their pieces are to be displayed. They can design a unique home for a unique collection, tailored to being sensitive to the needs of the individual work.

A bespoke architectural exhibition space will amplify the beauty, aura, relevance and impact of a collection. The whole character of the space might be shaped by an imaginative daylight and circulation concept, making the building itself an attraction. The relationship between inside and outside will be defined with a landscape designer working alongside the architect, keeping in mind that the external realm may function as an additional exhibition space. Specialist engineers will work with the architect to create spaces appropriate for the particularities of the individual art work, such as weight, light levels, climate control and security.

For the art collector, the architectural design process can inspire new ideas and responses to their collection. Throughout this journey, collectors might gain unexpected insights about their own motivations and how they relate to the evolving architectural project: why, when and what art works are collected, how they will be presented and preserved, where the exhibition space is located, and who and how large the potential audience is. Together, the collector and architect also face the challenge to design for future acquisitions, changing requirements and a growing, probably increasingly precious collection. This may raise questions of permanence versus flexibility.

An art patron might wish to include workspace and accommodation for artists-in-residence or commission site-specific art works. The exhibition space might form part of the living quarters or be completely self-contained. Collectors might want to add a café, restaurant, accommodation, work, event or education spaces, requiring the design team to integrate these different uses into the overall concept.

Through careful analysis of the client brief, the architect will lead and deliver the creative vision for the spaces. But it is only through close collaboration and an open dialogue between collectors, architects, specialist engineers, curators, financial advisors, art handlers and insurers etc., that it becomes apparent what the best architectural approach will be. A great building will materialise this dialogue, with the aim of meeting all requirements in an elegant, inspirational manner, while leaving space for change and contributing in a positive way to its surroundings and social context. 

Planning to exhibit contemporary art under a single roof can involve having to accommodate a diverse range of works from video art to large steel sculptures. This can result in unparalleled and inspiring buildings, both as new or adapted existing structures. Having to position themselves in relation to design fashions and ideology (e.g. the dominant modernist white cube art space, postmodernist attempts to break free from it, and recent excitement about digital parametric and participatory approaches), contemporary architects, artists, curators and collectors, eager to move on and explore, can enter new territories here.

The right architect will tend to challenge preconceived ideas and help the private collector, if they wish so, to make a meaningful contribution to contemporary culture, raising interest from both artistic and design communities. This way, an exhibition space can add substantial value and validation to a collection.

Practical consideration in selecting an architect
When starting their research to find the best architects and team of advisors, sensitive to the nuances and subtleties of their collection, collectors will most likely already have a list of art spaces they find inspiring and resonate with. An internet search will in many cases be sufficient to find out about the architectural teams, key people, who might have moved on to other practices, and other consultants involved: structural engineers, building services engineers, cost and environmental consultants etc.

In addition to this, a glance at the planning applications might be interesting, which tell the story of the project and are available online from the council websites in the UK. These give a good indication how the architects communicate ideas and make a case.

Beyond their occupation with the design of spaces, architects fulfil a pivotal, integral role at the core of the design team of technical experts. They drive and coordinate the design. They hold the project together by having a holistic overview about the work carried out by all those contributing to its design.

Architects typically take ownership on behalf of their clients when unforeseen complications need to be resolved during design or construction. They are advocates for the quality of the finished building. It would be fair to say that the energy to fulfil this pivotal role with personal engagement is derived from the passion for the project and the prospect of its realisation.

In established architecture practices, the project leading architect will fulfil this role, running the project on a daily basis and leading the team of designers. Any client would be well advised to understand their project architect’s relevant track record of past quality projects, their leadership skills, and the level of support they obtain from the management of the company (staff, supervision, time, reward etc.).  

Having the right support, an experienced project leader will be able to achieve the desired quality within a realistic given budget and time frame. The head(s) of the practice will most likely be involved in the design process by establishing the key direction and editing design proposals from the actual project teams under the leadership of the project architect. They will attend high level meetings to promote the design and resolve complex issues.

To benefit from this added value, some collectors might want to work with "star" architects who have a track record of well-respected signature work and are able to attract highly motivated, creative young talent from all over the world. They do rely on robust internal quality management procedures to compensate for a diverse and less experienced young work force.

Smaller, younger architecture practices are typically set up by former experienced project leading designers who know their craft and are highly motivated to make this move into independence. In particular, when having been involved in high-profile projects, they are keen to build their own quality architectural portfolio. Any collector who is interested in new ideas and a high level of energy and personal involvement of experienced project leaders, might find a good deal here.

Arts projects can be complex, and for the reasons above, architectural vision, passion, communication and coordination skills, technical knowledge and a track record of quality work and management are the key properties the project leading architect should bring in. Finding people with these combined personal skills is essential for a successful project, as is a supportive client, who, on a personal arts project, is quite likely to have a similar passion for an extraordinary result. 

At a very early stage, art collectors will find that they need a reliable and visionary partner to establish the core parameters of a project: spatial requirements, project budget, size, time frame, procurement route, quality and atmospheric aspirations. This is a good moment for collectors to draw from their research above and, without the need to sign a contract for the whole duration of the project, to work with one or more of the architects they find interesting, at this early stage of defining core project requirements. 

This gives them the opportunity to find out about “chemistry”, the architects’ vision for the display of the art works, whether they are competent to bring in profound and relevant experience from past projects, including access to other quality consultants, and manage to keep a focus on the “bigger picture”, which is a good indicator for a structured mode of operating. It is an opportunity to learn how the individual practice develops and communicates ideas. Some practices make extensive use of physical models during the design process, rather than relying on images alone, to explore and represent the spaces, which is very beneficial for the involvement and interaction with clients.

Following the definition of the requirements, skilled architects will maximise the value of their involvement and drive the process in a structured way towards the evolution of a convincing design that responds in a unique and sensitive way to a collector’s preferences, the collection’s requirements and a given context.

In the UK, all architects need to be registered with the Architects Registration Board (ARB). A practice chartered with the Royal Institute of British Architects will aim at offering a high standard of professional service.

Creating a private museum as an exhibition venue for the family collection?
More and more collectors now see their exhibition spaces not only as a certain package for their collection, but also as a self-sufficient attraction and artwork in itself, created to highlight the family’s art holdings.

A brief look at the history of the art museum shows that the tension between architecture and art goes back almost to the art museum's beginning and also shows that the purposes of art museums have varied enormously over the years and still vary from museum to museum. Architects are producing a substantial amount of work on private museum buildings globally as a result of an increased demand for an exhibition space that exceeds mere packaging and is able to create a space where interior and exterior meet. The relationship between architecture and art has become especially complex over the last few decades thanks to an enormous amount of crossover activity between architecture and art. Many artists make quasi-architectural works and some even seek architectural commissions, whereas many architects produce artworks for exhibition or engage in joint ventures with artists.

By now we have come to expect audacious designs for art museums and many critics complain that flamboyant museum architecture distracts viewers from the contemplation of art works. One lesson to be learned from recent museum designs indicate that no matter how radical or even outlandish a museum design may appear on the outside, the real test is whether the spaces within are appropriate to the particular kinds of works the building will shelter.

The appreciation of art is no longer possible without architecture as it is absolutely essential and an integral part of the experience. Making a private art collection public can have a profound impact on a collector’s reputation. Most importantly, for today’s collecting families art is no longer collected for the purpose of being stored in warehouses but must be exposed to public viewing and admiration as an essential part of acquiring its artistic qualities, market value and to leave a lasting legacy.

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