Looking to Get an Artwork Into the Met? Here’s a Highly Specific Rundown of How Major Museums Decide What to Acquire

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This spring, Matthew McLendon, the director of the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, taught a class on a largely shadowy subject: museum collecting. Along with sections on repatriation and deaccessioning, McLendon took his students through the complicated process of acquiring artworks.

Over the past semester, students researched objects proposed by curators at the Fralin and presented reports recommending objects for acquisition. The idea, McLendon told Artnet News, is to “think critically about how art museums have and continue to build collections and how the philosophy around collection-building has evolved.”

McLendon’s class got us thinking: how exactly do museum acquisitions work, anyway? Major donations with mega price tags, like the New York socialite Jayne Wrightsman’s bequest of $80 million and over 375 artworks to the Met in 2019, tend to grab headlines. But more important when it comes to a museum’s collecting strategy and self-image is how it chooses to spend its own money on artworks. 

To get a sense of how it all works, Artnet News surveyed major institutions around the world to get a better understanding of their acquisitions procedures.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)

Centre Pompidou, Paris

Who oversees acquisitions?: The Centre Pompidou, which houses France’s National Museum of Modern Art (MNAM), holds two meetings annually to discuss acquisitions. The meetings are chaired by the president of the Pompidou; the museum’s director; a representative from the Ministry of Culture of France; the ministry’s director of creative and performing arts; and four other confidential panelists chosen for their expertise in Modern and contemporary art. Once works enter the national collection, they cannot be sold. 

What is the acquisitions budget?: The museum receives a public subsidy of €1.8 million each year, with an additional €200,000 in 2021 and 2022. It receives substantial additional support from the American Friends of the Centre Pompidou and the Friends of the Centre Pompidou, the latter of which has specific committees, known as International Circles, covering different regions around the globe. There is also a specific committee for art made in France. Additionally, the museum receives a large number artworks donations.

How many acquisitions were made in 2021?: 814 works were purchased from private and public funds. In 2021, over 900 works were included in the Bruno Decharme bequest, so that 2,468 objects—much more than in most years—were gifted to the museum.

What are the acquisitions priorities?: “Our priority is, of course, to record the excellence of the art produced by French artists and artists in France and situate this in relation to the best art produced in other important artistic scenes internationally,” museum director Xavier Rey said.

How do they decide on whether to accept a gift or bequest?: Proposals for donations are studied by the relevant expert from the MNAM’s team of 30 curators so that the quality of the work can be evaluated. Considerations include how it fits with the museum’s general strategy, how it can be incorporated into the collection, and how it can be presented to the public. The director presents offers to the acquisitions committee. 

Can any acquisitions be made outside of the acquisitions committee procedures?: No. 

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 26: A guard wearing a protective face mask walks through Michael Heizer"s "Levitated Mass" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the coronavirus pandemic on April 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 206,000 lives with more than 2.9 million confirmed cases. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Who oversees acquisitions?: The Acquisitions Committee is comprised of 27 members, including museum trustees and other experts.

What is the acquisitions budget?: The museum does not have an acquisition fund except for a small annual endowment for photography. Major purchases are acquired via the Collectors Committee, which has been at the core of the museum’s acquisitions efforts since 1986. The group of donors vote annually for artworks to join LACMA’s collection. In addition, there are fundraising efforts by LACMA support groups such as Art Here and Now, a group of museum supporters who visit artists’ studios with curators, and the Decorative Arts and Design Acquisitions Committee.

How many acquisitions were made in 2021?: 2,272, of which 412 were purchases and 1,860 were gifts. 

What are the acquisitions priorities?: Acquisitions priorities are initiated by curators and the director based on collection strengths and to bolster scholarship. As an art museum on the Pacific Rim and in a city home to hundreds of cultures and languages, LACMA has been focused on diversifying and globalizing the collection across departments. Currently, LACMA is thinking about acquiring works that will enhance the installation of the permanent collection and provide opportunities for curatorial collaborations in the future David Geffen Galleries.

How do they decide on whether to accept a gift or bequest?: The Acquisitions Committee makes decisions on gifts or bequests based on many factors, including assessments by the curators and director. The most important factor is the relationship of the proposed work to the existing collection. 

Can any acquisitions be made outside of the acquisitions committee procedures?: On occasion, works of art offered at auctions can be purchased with the approval of the director or—if the work is of very high value—can be approved for acquisition by the executive committee of the Board of Trustees. 

The Tate Britain in London. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

Tate, London

Who oversees acquisitions?: The acquisitions committees are fundraising bodies; the selection of works is a separate process initiated by specialist curators at Tate, led by the two directors of the collection (one for British and one for international art) and considered by the Acquisitions Group. Final assessments are made by the Collections Committee, which has seven members, four of whom are Trustees. The Board of Trustees gets final approval.

What is the acquisitions budget?: Very few acquisitions are purchased using Tate’s public funding from the U.K.’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. The museum’s other spending is supported by sources like the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, Tate Members, Tate Patrons, and Tate International Council. The majority of acquisitions are gifts.

How many acquisitions were made in 2021?: Approximately 750, of which 500 were gifts. 

What are the acquisitions priorities?: Priorities are agreed by the Board of Trustees.  The 2020–25 strategy is to increase holdings of women artists, LGBTQ+ artists, minority artists and artists of color. They also hope to acquire more experiential works and objects in wider-ranging media, such as fiber and textile art, performance and digital forms, and computer-based works.

How do they decide on whether to accept a gift or bequest?: All works proposed for acquisition are considered through the same procedures, whether they are purchases, gifts, or allocated by the government through the Acceptance In Lieu scheme, by which the U.K. government allows taxpayers to pay inheritance taxes by transferring works of art or heritage objects into public ownership.

Can any acquisitions be made outside of the Collection Committee procedures?: The director has the authority to spend up to £100,000 should a purchase be necessary in between meetings of the Collection Committee and Board of Trustees.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JUNE 11: People congregate outside of the Art Institute of Chicago on June 11, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Today Chicago and the rest of the state of Illinois lifted nearly all COVID-19 restrictions, allowing for no capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms, or other large venues and no social distancing requirements. Chicago becomes the largest city in the nation to fully reopen. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The exterior of the Art Institute of Chicago. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Art Institute of Chicago

Who oversees acquisitions?: Each of the museum’s 11 curatorial departments has an advisory committee drawn from members of the board, the collector community, and curators’ networks of relevant experts.

What is the acquisitions budget?: Acquisitions are largely paid for from funds that have been gifted to the museum. The budget varies from year to year and depends on the nature and scope of planned acquisitions.

How many acquisitions were made in 2021?: 844, of which 322 were purchased; 519 were gifts; and 3 were bequests. 

What are the acquisitions priorities?: The Art Institute prioritizes works that present inclusive narratives; demonstrate impeccable quality or technical innovation; or are part of a pivotal moment in the history of art, according to the museum.

How do they decide on whether to accept a gift or bequest?: Curators provide committee members with their rationale for acquiring works, and then the committee evaluates and votes. 

Can any acquisitions be made outside of the acquisitions committee procedures?: The president and director can authorize certain acquisitions through purchase and can accept some gifts without additional approval. 

The East Building of the National Gallery of Art via a cobblestone walkway on a warm and humid day on July 09, 2019. The Washington, D.C area has experienced several hot and humid days lately. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The East Building of the National Gallery of Art. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Who oversees acquisitions?: Curators, executive leadership, the board of trustees, and the board’s Art and Education Committee vet acquisitions proposals four times a year during three regular board meetings and one special meeting at the end of the year. 

What is the acquisitions budget?: Purchases are privately funded as the National Gallery does not use federal funds for acquisitions. The amount is confidential. 

How many acquisitions were made in 2021?: 454 artworks were acquired, of which 341 were gifts and 113 were purchases. 

What are the acquisitions priorities?: The galleries showcase more than 3,000 of the 158,001 works in the collection, many of which are by European and American artists. While the museum is working to diversify the collection, it stresses that its exhibitions, research, and programs also explore artists or histories beyond the stories told in the permanent galleries.

How do they decide on whether to accept a gift or bequest?: All works proposed for acquisition are considered through the same procedures, whether as a purchase or a gift.

Can any acquisitions be made outside of the acquisitions committee procedures?: No.

A security guard stands at his post as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopens to the public on August 29, 2020. Photo by Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo by Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Who oversees acquisitions?: A committee of 37 members, among them director and several trustees. 

What is the acquisitions budget?: The amount varies greatly from year to year. In the fiscal year 2020–2021, the Met spent $36.4 million on acquisitions, compared to $89 million from 2018–2019. 

How many acquisitions were made in 2021?: In the fiscal year ending in 2021, 1,623 works were acquired of which 262 were purchases and 1,361 were gifts of bequests. 

What are the acquisitions priorities?: Presently, the museum is working to diversify its collection. One initiative is the creation of an endowment for works by BIPOC artists, although this is not the only set of funds used for these kinds of acquisitions.

How do they decide on whether to accept a gift or bequest?: Gifts and bequests are presented to the board of trustees by written recommendation of the curatorial department, which is reviewed by the relevant conservation department and counsel’s office, and approved by the director’s office. 

Can any acquisitions be made outside of the acquisitions committee procedures?: No. 

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. (Photo by Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 

Who oversees acquisitions?: Acquisitions are overseen by the museum’s curators and director, working in tandem with three distinct acquisition committees, each with their own area of focus. These committees are made up of museum patrons, whose membership dues constitute the primary budgets for acquisitions.  

What is the acquisitions budget?: Acquisitions budgets fluctuate depending on committee membership. In a given year, combined acquisition budgets across all committees tends to be between $500,000 and $1 million. 

How many acquisitions were made in 2021?: 121 works were acquired in 2021.

What are the acquisitions priorities?: MOCA collects across art-historical and contemporary work across media and geography. In recent years, it has worked to expanded its holdings of work by women artists and artists of color.

How do they decide on whether to accept a gift or bequest?: Offers of gifts, bequests, and promised gifts are all considered by museum curators and director. If an offer is of interest, it is proposed to the relevant acquisition committee for further consideration and a vote.

Can any acquisitions be made outside of the acquisitions committee procedures?: No.

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