Senate Finance Committee scrutinizes private museums for art collectors


Institutions like the Broad in Los Angeles are under government control. (photo by Matt Stromberg for Hyperallergic, author’s illustration)

The trend of private art museums has become so widespread in the United States that Uncle Sam is taking note. Sunday on New York Times reported that the Senate Finance Committee, under the direction of its president, Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), opened an investigation into the tax-exempt status of 11 private museums. The concern of the committee is that some private museums, rather than providing the kinds of public services that deserve 501 (c) (3) charitable tax status, serve as a private exhibition hall for the art portfolios of wealthy individuals.

Senator Hatch sent letters to the founders of the 11 museums – ESMOA in El Segundo, the Performing Arts Foundation in Vermont, Goss-Michael Foundation in Dallas, the Brant Foundation in Connecticut, Glenstone in Maryland, the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, the Kreeger Museum in Washington, DC, The Broad in Los Angeles, Pier 24 in San Francisco, the Linda Pace Foundation in San Antonio, and the Fisher Landau Art Center in Queens – asking them to clarify certain details of their operations and services. The letter includes questions about the institutions’ hours of operation, admission policies, attendance records, loans of works to other museums and any grants or awards they offer.

“[R]Recent reports have raised the possibility that some private foundations operate museums that provide minimal benefit to the public while allowing donors to reap substantial tax benefits, ”Senator Hatch wrote in his letter. “Such an arrangement would be inconsistent with the letter and intent of the 501 (c) (3) tax exemption.”

Although the institutions involved vary considerably in size, scope and breadth of their programming, all are affiliated with charitable organizations created by major art collectors. These include Eli Broad, whose art museum of the same name opened in Los Angeles earlier this year; collectors Mitchell and Emily Rales, whose 200-acre Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, is in the midst of a quadruple expansion; and Mera and Donald Rubell, whose 45,000-square-foot Rubell Family Collection is a staple of Miami’s artistic extravagance in early December. Some of these institutions have regular opening hours and abundant public programming, but others are only open part of the year or strictly by appointment. However, the staff of the Senate Finance Committee do not consider the problem of private foundations enjoying the benefits of the tax exemption to be a widespread problem, but rather a problem limited to a few selected institutions.

“There has certainly been increased attention to these organizations in the press and elsewhere,” Aaron W. Fobes, the committee’s press secretary, told Hyperallergic. “However, we believe the concerns are limited to a small number of private foundations and are not something that is symptomatic of a larger problem in exempt organizations.”

In its letter, Hatch gives the 11 museums concerned until December 15 to answer its questions.

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