Non-Collecting Museums

Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine,” originally published December 10, 2010.

Rachel Hewitt

In my research into our recent series of articles on museums and museum collections policies, I ran into an interesting term: the non-collecting museum. What is a non-collecting museum, and how does this status affect accreditation and exhibition practices? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a non-collecting museum?

The Renaissance Society

To state the obvious, a non-collecting museum does not have a permanent collection, nor does it deal in new acquisitions. Originally, non-collecting institutions, including the Renaissance Society, which remains a non-collecting institution, but not an American Association of Museums accredited museum, were founded as a way to exhibit modernist works, whose advocates believed that public exposure to the work would promote acceptance and understanding of modernism. Over time, educational programming including lectures, study groups, and classes were introduced, all of which were held to the highest museum standards.

The non-collecting art museum is a relative anomaly, and many of the museums that started out as non-collecting entities have gone on to make the transition to forming permanent collections, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, which began collecting in the 1980’s. A spokesman for the AAM told me that non-collecting museums can and do achieve accreditation, though they remain a small percentage of the number of accredited institutions. In this case, the AAM’s accreditation criteria that 80% of the institution’s collection must be formally accessioned, would not be addressed in the accreditation process, as it is not applicable.

In one way, non-collecting museums are at an advantage. These museums can cut back on collections management costs like in house conservators, storage, preservationists, and other collections staff. They also can avoid the complicated acquisitions and deaccession processes. A non-collecting institution can focus its resources, funds, and staff on exhibitions, educational programming, and public outreach, allowing a more comprehensive interaction between the museum and the public. In many ways these museums can make public accountability a higher priority, and focus on the characteristics outlined in the AAM’s Characteristics of an Accreditable Museum that refer to the museum’s relationship with the public. This document states, among other characteristics, “The museum asserts its public service role and places education at the center of that role” and “The museum demonstrates a commitment to providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources.” Instead of focusing on collections, and using a collection as a tool for public stewardship, these museums can dive right into educational programming.

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

There is a negative flip side, as there usually is, to this approach, though. Non-collecting museums’ exhibitions and programming must be of extremely high caliber in order to secure funding for such programming, and they must be able to demonstrate a high level of professionalism in care and handling of art objects, which can be difficult without a collections history, and in the prestige of its staff, though in some cases non-collecting museums’ relationships with other institutions, such as the Renaissance Society’s association with the University of Chicago, can help them establish a reputation. Non-collecting institutions also lack the ability to build reciprocal relationships with other museums in order to trade works for use in exhibitions.

Though the costs of collections and acquisitions diverts funds away from exhibitions and programming, which may arguably alter the quality of programming a museum can put forth, most museums have chosen to go the collecting route. For most of them, the pros seem to outweigh the cons, and many museums, one successful example being the MCA, perhaps because of its history as a non-collecting museum, have tried to do their best to make their collections work for them in terms of being a tool for public programming. While this has been effective in the cases of museums with a more narrow scope in collections (contemporary, folk art, Latin American, etc.), it will be interesting to see how collections strategies evolve in larger institutions whose collections span hundreds of years, various periods, styles, and origins, and are obligated to care for their collections in perpetuity.