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Acquisition & co-ownership

MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift  flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) 2001 was purchased from Sperone Westwater, New York jointly by Tate, London with funds provided by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery; Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Paris with the support of Mr and Mrs William S. Fisher Family Foundation and the Georges Pompidou Culture Foundation; and Kunstmuseum Basel, in 2004.

Prior to the acquisition of MAPPING THE STUDIO II, the co-owners not only had to consider the purchase price of the work but also the cost of the equipment to show the work and archiving costs.

The costs of display equipment such as DVD players, amps, speakers, cables and projectors, as well as the need to migrate the video onto new formats in the future, are the types of consideration that museums need to bear in mind when acquiring a time-based media installation.


Co-ownership of works of art is a relatively new way for museums to buy artworks for their collection. With few major works available for purchase and prices which are often prohibitive, it is something that is likely to increase.  There are a number of good reasons for museums purchasing works of art jointly. Not only does it increase the fundraising capacity and purchasing power, and cement stronger links between institutions, but it also helps to ensure that the work of art is kept in the public domain.  As Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Centre in Mineapolis, who, in 2000 jointly acquired with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2: the drones’ exposition, states:

‘The general public doesn’t much care who owns something, they just want to see it. So for institutions to give up single ownership is not a radical idea. It’s healthy for institutions and our audiences’

- as quoted by Jason Edward Kaufman, The Days of Single Ownership are Over, Art Newspaper, No. 147, May 2004

In the UK, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the Art Fund, both committed to improving access to works of art, have helped to fund joint purchases, further encouraging the practice of co-ownership.

Tate was one of the partners in the first international collaboration of this kind, when in 2002 it negotiated along with the Whitney Museum in New York and the Pompidou in Paris, the purchase of Bill Viola’s Five Angels for the Millennium, 2001.

Because there may be no object in the traditional sense (with associated shipping insurance costs), video art particularly lends itself to museum sharing. Each of the co-owners has a copy of the work, but only one museum will have the work on display at any given time. It is important to highlight the distinction between shared ownership – whereby institutions jointly own a single work of art; and a museum having sole ownership of a work which was made and sold as several editions. In the latter case, museums can display the work when they wish, even if another institution also has the work on display.

What are the possible drawbacks of co-ownership?

According to a statement written by the Heritage Lottery Fund:

‘Joint ownership can throw up problems such as maintaining long-term management, deciding who is ultimately responsible, insurance, increasing the risk to the object or collection if it is to be physically shared, and so on’

And the more partners involved in the purchase the more problematic the logistics become. The acquisition of Bill Viola’s Five Angels for the Millennium, 2001 involved negotiating three legal systems, two based on common law (the US and the UK), and one based on civil law (France), as well as the respective institutions' mission agendas and guidelines.

A highly detailed Co-ownership Agreement is essential to the success of joint ownership of artworks. The Agreement outlines the presentation schedule for the artwork – which institution shows it when, as well as detailing the shared responsibilities for its care.

Another possible drawback to joint ownership, particularly when museums which are geographically close are pooling their resources to purchase an artwork, is the potential danger of a repetition of museum collections, and a resulting ‘sameness’ in our experience of these collections.