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Perils of the Single-Collector Museum: Terra Foundation’s Museum of American Art Giverny Folds

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The late Daniel Terra in the now defunct Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, 1987

I’m a little late getting this news, which I discovered from a Feb. 18 post by my French blogging buddy, Didier Rykner, in his Art Tribune. Didier reported that the Musée d’Art Américain Giverny (MAAG) had “closed its doors to make way for the Musée des Impressionismes. The Terra Foundation no longer wished to either manage or finance this establishment.”

Elizabeth Glassman, president of  the Terra Foundation for American Art, informed me that MAAG had closed on Oct. 31 and a new museum in the Terra-owned building, the Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny (MDIG), will open on May 1. “The Terra Foundation remains very involved in the new museum,” Glassman added. MDIG, she said, “will be overseen by a team of cultural partners and the French government, including the Department of the Eure, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Musée d’Orsay, the Région Haute-Normandie, the Fondation Claude Monet and the Department of Seine-Maritime.”

The foundation, which retains and makes loans (especially to the Art Institute of Chicago) from the 750-work American art collection of the late Daniel Terra, President Reagan’s ambassador-at-large for cultural affairs, has shifted its focus from museum operation to grantmaking and exhibition partnerships with other museums. Terra’s pride and joy, the foundation’s flagship museum for his collection in Chicago, closed its doors in 2004. Its traditional, largely figurative collection attracted anemic attendance.

The foundation, on its website, claims:

Today, the Terra Foundation for American Art carries forward the vision of Ambassador Terra, building on his tireless efforts to bring American art to ever-widening audiences.

But the founder’s conviction that the nation’s heartland merited its own museum dedicated to America’s artistic heritage was the core of his “vision.” There’s been a big mission shift.

As I said in my 2004 Wall Street Journal article on endangered single-collector museums (including the Terra):

The founders often unwittingly thwart their own desires, failing to create enduring plans for professional management and outside financial support. Too often, the administrators and board members entrusted with the collection’s postmortem stewardship are impelled less by the founder’s vision than by fiscal and administrative expedience.

All of this should give pause to other collectors now considering the creation of museums solely dedicated to their personal collections. The works may not be consigned to storage, as many might be in a larger, more traditional museum, but the assurance of an arrangement that will last for posterity sometimes trumps the possibly fleeting glory of an eponymous institution.

an ArtsJournal blog