In lean times like these, when museums are budgeting to the razor’s edge, those with pools for art purchases enjoy a distinct advantage — they are not permitted to use the money, usually about 5 percent of the principal each year, for anything but buying art.
“It ensures that the collection will continue to grow,” said Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It’s always tempting to use your money for the activity of the day and to postpone acquisitions. But acquisitions are not postpone-able — they are a matter of opportunity.”
On rare occasions, a few museums have taken the controversial step of seeking permission to break with the intent of the donors. Michigan’s economic troubles have prompted Graham W. J. Beal, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, to get permission from the descendants of two donors to divert half of the annual $4 million payout from the institute’s $74 million acquisitions endowment to operations.
Hearing the alternative — more cuts in the museum’s budget, which has shrunk by nearly 30 percent to $24 million since the 2008 fiscal year — they agreed, and the courts concurred.
Still, the institute was able to tap its kitty in the last two years to buy a 17th-century amber and ivory casket; a silver and partly gilded nautilus cup made in Nuremberg, Germany, around 1650; and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s 1872 painting “On the Nile,” among other works.
Who has money set aside for buying art, and who does not, has more to do with a museum’s benefactors than with its size or location. The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., has more than four times what the Seattle Museum of Art has: $35 million versus less than $7.8 million. That is because Henry Melville Fuller, a trustee, upon his death in 2001 left the Currier $43 million, half designated for the art purchase fund.
Likewise, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston zoomed higher in the ranks — with nearly $400 million set aside — when the oil heiress Caroline Wiess Law died in 2003, leaving $192 million, out of her $480 million bequest, for art purchases. That money, says Gary Tinterow, the museum’s director, has among other things enabled it to carve out a niche as a destination and a research center for Latin American art. “No one else has this,” he said.
Over the last two decades, many museums across the country have added wings, but few have had a patron like Bruce Dayton, a life trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He insisted that money raised in the $100 million fund-raising campaign for the Target wing, which opened in 2006, be split 50-50 between the building and the acquisitions endowment.
That fund, now at $91 million, has allowed the institute to buy a rare early 18th-century Native American painted buckskin shirt and a nine-foot-long topographical “View of Venice” made by Jacopo de’ Barbari in 1500, among other recent purchases.