In early modern Europe, princes and wealthy elites accumulated wonderful things―rarities of nature or examples of human ingenuity―which they displayed in special chambers and invited select guests to view. The idea of showing these to the general public was an altruistic off-shoot of the French Revolution, which promoted the idea of art for all classes.
On these grounds, the collection of the ruling Bourbon dynasty was opened at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Over time, the holdings of many private collections formed the foundation of what were to become national museums. Sir Hans Sloane's collection of scientific material formed the basis of the British Museum while Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon's paintings collection laid the foundation for the National Gallery in Washington. But certain private collectors, such as Henry Clay Frick, Albert C. Barnes and Isabella Stewart Gardner, enshrined their collections as single-owner private museums, creating a legacy that has passed down through generations.
Recent years have witnessed an explosion in the establishment of private art museums. For a collector it is the most extreme and satisfying expression of one's own taste, a lasting legacy that makes a strong impact on society today and in the future. The building in which a collection is housed is a key aspect in the appeal of these newly created institutions. Leading architects conceive structures that will attract visitors and make a statement about their own vision and capabilities. For frequent travellers and art lovers, here is a global sampling of three of the best:
Mexico City Carlo Slim’s wife, Soumaya, was the engine behind their collection, and the first object bought was a Flemish Old Master painting of the 16th century. Their collection swelled to over 66,000 pieces from 30 centuries of art with the main focus on European art, including the second largest Rodin sculpture collection counting 380 pieces, the largest Salvador Dali collection in Latin America and rare works by Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet, alongside some great examples of Mexican art. In 2011, the Museo Soumaya, built by Fernando Romero, was opened in Mexico City. Encased in glimmering aluminium, the building rises up 150 feet, before it canopies like an oversized mushroom. The facade is a honeycomb of shiny silver hexagons. The interior reveals six individually shaped exhibition floors, and the Soumaya cost an estimated $70 million to construct. The museum has around one million visits yearly. It ranks as the most seen art museum in Mexico and the 56th most visited museum in the world. In my opinion, this special gift is exactly what this city needed. The majority of the population here might never have the means to travel to international museums to view paintings and sculptors by the masters. Slim has provided a venue, with free admission, for all those interested in the art world.
Moscow In 2008, Dasha Zhukova founded the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow and featured Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, followed by the wildly impressive François Pinault collection and a collaboration between David Lynch and Christian Louboutin. The name is derived from the usage of the space as it was built by Konstantin Melnikov as a bus depot in the 1920s. Garage's main purpose is to connect Russia with the international art world. Garage has made forays in almost every sphere of visual art, created Russia’s only system of grants for young artists and opened a 15,000-volume research library. For the moment, Garage is housed in a temporary site in Gorky Park. A stunning prefabricated pavilion designed by Japanese Pritzker prize-winner Shigeru Ban incorporates 20-foot-high columns made from recycled cardboard to create a circular, light-filled temple of art.
The current exhibition, titled The New International, examines contemporary art in the post-glasnost era. A copper shard of Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo’s 'We the People', a reproduction of the Statue of Liberty in life-size pieces, sits near the work of Russian provocateur Alexander Brener, who spray-painted a dollar sign on a Kazimir Malevich painting in Amsterdam in 1997. What you see from the outside is a two-storey concrete bunker covered with graffiti but knowing that Rem Koolhaas has partnered with Dasha Zhukova to redevelop the building, it will embrace the past and bring it to a new light for future generations.
Los Angeles The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is in Michigan State University. Its pleated stainless steel and glass facade is designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid. This contemporary museum showcases art from all over the world and from the Greek and Roman periods, the Renaissance to the modern. What makes it special is that while it recognises the importance of past, Broad MSU at the same time promotes learning and experimentation. More than 70 per cent of the 46,000-square-foot facility is dedicated to exhibition space, including a research centre for works of art on paper.
*Dr Amin Jaffer is international director of Asian art at Christie's. *