New Ways of Work: Major Donors Help with Museum Acquisitions in Maine

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Colby College

October 12, 2014; Portland Press Herald

Two museums in Maine have acquired large pieces of artwork with the help of single individual donors, rather than other traditional financial acquisition methods. The Colby College Museum of Art now has on exhibit Chamrousse by Joan Mitchell, which the Museum’s executive director describes as “the best example of abstract expressionism in Maine.” In November, the Portland Museum of Art will display a sculpture by Robert Indiana titled Seven. Both institutions were able to purchase these new works of art with the help of major individual donors and partners of the museums.

Granted, every museum has its own policy of new artwork acquisition, which includes a range of details such as the piece’s time period, style, artist, size, and other specifications that align with the museum’s goals and mission. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) offers museums in the United States a set of best practice policies for guidance through the general acquisition process. AAM’s standards “address ‘big picture’ issues about how museums operate. For the most part, they define broad outcomes that can be achieved in many different ways and are flexible enough to accommodate a diverse museum field.”

What makes these purchases in the Maine museums unique is the financial assistance from individual donors for such large pieces. In the past, it has been extremely common for individual donors to donate or gift a work of art to a museum. But these new cases demonstrate an advanced role of a donor who has taken an interest in a work and then assisted the museum in raising the appropriate amount of funds for the purchase through matching funds. An anonymous donor promised the Portland Museum of Art a majority of funds for the purchase of Seven so long as the museum could raise the rest. The museum’s campaign, which is ongoing, raised close to $400,000 for the piece, and includes a crowdfunding component. Other museums have recently used crowdfunding campaigns to purchase exhibition works, including the Louvre in Paris.

Previously, it might have have been a concern for any artistic nonprofit to accept a large donation or gift from a donor, especially if it was restricted. Artistic nonprofits should carefully consider large donations and the effect of that donation (either financially or otherwise) on the mission and goals of the organization. Donors and partners of a nonprofit should not dictate an organization’s mission, rather enhance, expand, or complement it. As Bob Keyes wrote in the Portland Press Herald:

In Maine and elsewhere, museums depend upon the vision and generosity of individual donors to build and enhance their art collections. The cost of art has made it nearly impossible for museums to buy significant works of art or compete at an auction, as they once did, so they build relationships with artists, collectors and donors whose goals align with museum strategies.”

Whether it be through AAM, another expert group or coalition on best museum practices, or independently, it is up to individual museums to determine how they wish to acquire the funds to purchase their artworks. Many different approaches can be taken, but these two museums in Maine have identified a new potential avenue to raise funds for the acquisition of artwork—a hybrid model that combines sources such as a large donor with other funds raised by the museum.—Jennifer Swan