Art collectors and public art museums: A philanthropic partnership

Par Wendy Reid , Professeure honoraire, HEC Montréal et chercheure
26 septembre 2023

Interview with Gwendolyn Owens, Director, Visual Arts Collection, McGill University.

Crédit photo: Godefroy Mosry

Gwendolyn Owens, Director, Visual Arts Collection, McGill University, is responsible for the University’s wide-ranging and expanding collection, which now includes more than 3500 works of art inside and outside buildings across three campuses. She has previously held curatorial positions at the university museums at Cornell University, Williams College, and the University of Maryland as well as the Canadian Centre for Architecture. An expert on university collections, collection management, and museum buildings, she has worked with many institutions, particularly universities, to help them organize their collections and follow professional standards. Her scholarly publications include articles, exhibition catalogues, and books on a wide range of topics including artist-architect Gordon Matta-Clark, on whom she has written extensively; mid-nineteenth century American landscape painting; painters Maurice Prendergast and David Milne; Montreal artist and architect Melvin Charney; art markets in the 20th century; and kitchen wallpaper in Canada. She is currently researching the work of Canadian painter Marian Dale Scott.

The interview and further research were conducted by Wendy Reid, Honorary Professor, HEC Montréal


In honor of the institution’s 150th year, this publication celebrates the 203 collectors who committed more than 2,500 works of art to The Met for the sesquicentennial. These meaningful additions change the ways in which we think about the Museum’s holdings and deepen the stories The Met can tell about all the works in the collection (Hollein, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, 2020).

Art collectors who are donors of art are a distinctive feature of cultural philanthropy. The relationships and organizational dynamics among private art collectors, public museum curatorial staff and philanthropy professionals have become increasingly important in an era of limited public funding of art museums. This discussion provides reflections on a distinct philanthropic partnership in the field of public institutions of art.

Gifts of tangible personal property are familiar to professionals in the world of philanthropy, especially to those who work in collecting institutions. However, visual arts institutions like public museums are particularly concerned about these gifts because their collections are strategic and central to their mission. Donors of art bring an external experience and taste to the institutional vision for the collection anchored from within the institution. These donors are not only major donors supporting the institution, but they also act as a partner to how the collection grows and is interpreted. In the epigraph above, The Metropolitan Museum in New York reflects on the importance of the collector-donor role for their mission (Hollein, 2020).

Through the 20th and 21st century, externally sourced funding for public museum art acquisitions in Canada has been very limited, depending on the institution. Public funding for Canadian institutions is directed towards operations, with an increasing need for earned revenue. Private donations are often linked to specific projects, exhibitions, and capital needs. Philanthropy directed to an institution’s collection typically comes as gifts of tangible property from generous private collectors, although some institutions have also received bequests that establish funds for acquisitions. Institutional directors and curators engage in ongoing conversations with these collectors about art. These relationships may enable loans for exhibitions but may also generate a donation of art.

The art market is a distinctive and visible means of valuation for art collectors. In 1977, the government of Canada established an important tax credit program based on the market value of objects that are donated to collecting institutions. This program encourages collectors to donate art and other objects of outstanding significance to an appropriate Canadian institution. This incentive is linked to the Canadian government’s signature on the UNESCO convention on illicit trade of cultural property, which included a further goal of reducing the export of cultural property. Research and reflection amongst practicing specialists and philanthropy scholars about private art collections and philanthropy in public art museums is a nuanced discussion deserving attention.

Collection development is a topic of great interest in the museology literature, discussed in training manuals and academic research (Lord et al, 2012; Matassa, 2011). Discussion about collections that may be from major donors is sometimes accompanied by commentary on status and wealth reflecting the more fiscal and legal concerns of philanthropy (Corbett, 2023, Quemin, 2020).

On the other hand, while the contributions of philanthropists and private collectors appear to be well-recognized on institutional websites (MOMA, MMFA), the research literature (Szczepanski, 2017) and professional practice manuals reveal limited analytical understanding of managing these collector-donor relationships. Curators are on the front lines of these relationships, but management of philanthropic relationships is often intuitive. A study of the humanity embedded in these relationships and the related organizational dynamics is limited (for an exception, see Szczepanski, 2017; Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, 2016). In this study, we offer experiential reflections that may provide a platform for further research on the topic.

An interview with Gwendolyn Owens, Director of the Visual Arts Collection at McGill University, and an experienced curator of art at institutions in the US and Canada, provides a range of such reflections. Interview excerpts on several aspects of this phenomenon are presented, starting with insights on potential donor perspectives and organizational dynamics. Reading in the museology literature and conversations with two other public museum and philanthropy professionals anonymously enrich our text. We reflect on the possible impact of the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board (CCPERB) and then investigate concerns regarding planned gifts of art. The conversation with Gwendolyn is synthesized here, marked by my questions and interventions in bold, the identification of key themes in quotation marks, and information from websites identified through their hyperlink.


Art collectors

Gwendolyn Owens:

Art collectors are distinctive. If you give to a hospital to fund a lab or program, the institution will certainly invite you to be part of everything. You clearly value the role that labs play in a hospital’s mission. But it is unlikely that you will have a lab at home. If you are a donor to an art museum, there is a pretty good chance that there is also art in your home.

  • Reciprocal Passion

Wendy Reid: For a ‘serious’ art collector, their art becomes an extension of themselves (Shields, 2009). I gather that there is a deep investment in knowledge about the collection, a passion, and a lot of personal identity. Can you confirm and elaborate on that?

Gwendolyn Owens:

I think that is true but for a percentage. To meet someone like that is typically a terrific experience for a curator because that passion often partners with an incredible generosity about sharing their collection.

For a serious collector to have a relationship with a curator and a museum that is interesting and interested, it is very stimulating for the collector. They gain insight about their collection but also are able to speak with people who appreciate them and the ideas that they have. Serious collectors do not primarily consider their collection as an asset class.

A close relationship between the institution and the curator often evolves well because there is no discussion of money. Instead, the conversation is about things and ideas that these people love. It is not threatening.

Curators come to respect the competence of collectors. As well, if curators have been collectors, collectors see in these curators somebody like them. It can be a very strong relationship.


Curators and philanthropy

Wendy Reid: From my understanding, curatorial training is focussed on art history and rarely includes much information about organizational management or revenue development like philanthropy. What is your experience with this issue?

Gwendolyn Owens:

Philanthropy was always part of my mentor’s thinking, as a curator. So, as we were working on an exhibition, we considered how we could validate the collectors who were lending to the show. In this case, we put a drawing as a frontispiece to the catalogue, because it belonged to the collector, and was indicative of a level of respect for that person’s choice in their collection. This oriented me to the importance of collector relationships. These relationships do not dictate, but it is always in the back of my mind. With any collector, it is important to show respect for who that collector is. I like to think that that will inform the relationship, despite the possibility that my taste and artistic values might not be theirs.

  • Ethics and influence

Gwendolyn Owens:

To avoid conflicts of interest some of us were trained that if we were to collect personally, it should be something that your institution does not collect. For some collectors I’ve met, I can see that everything they bought was from a shopping list that they were given by an art dealer, a consultant, or a friend. I think that that’s probably not the best approach to collecting, but I need to respect who they are and what they have, and maintain a non-judgmental relationship. You don’t want to direct collectors in any way that’s overt, but certainly, if they’ve come to know you, they might like what you’re working on.

Collectors love to tell me what they’ve just bought, but I am never going to say, that was a bad choice. When you’re talking about a long-term relationship, which potentially leads to a planned gift, the blurring of the lines is a hard problem for all of us. You’ve known this person longer than you’ve known a lot of your friends. How that relationship doesn’t become too intimate is a bit tricky.


Philanthropy professionals, curators, and relationships with collectors

Wendy Reid: As mentioned, curators learn about philanthropy on the job through mentoring, or sometimes through formal training. Development professionals often need education about the art in their institution’s mission so that they understand the needs of the curators and the organization. Let’s explore those relationships.

Gwendolyn Owens:

Unless the philanthropy professional has a strong background in curatorship and art history, a conversation with a collector is more circumscribed. They can’t talk to the person necessarily about their art. However, they may speak about a project being funded and achieving a significant tax receipt. But it is the opposite for the curator. We can talk about the person’s art but not the fiscal implications of philanthropy. These are two overlapping circles of discussion. We have a joint area where we can build.

Ideally, the approach to the collector-donor is developed in collaboration between the development professional and a curator or the director of the institution. Both are involved so that it is seen as a partnership, rather than one person being more important than the other. In making a joint approach, the most experienced development professionals with whom I have worked go through a whole scenario with me before a meeting with a donor. Through this experience, we share an understanding about the donor and their relationship with the institution.

Each person involved in courting a collector-donor is judged by performance evaluation metrics. For curators the metric is often what art they are able to bring into the collection; for foundation staff it’s often about money. So, if a collector leaves their prized 19th century print that fills a gap in the collection, the curator fulfills their evaluation objectives. The philanthropy professional may or may not get credit for assistance in that process based on the value of the print. But at the same time, perhaps the donor could have given more money than the value of the print and that would have pleased the foundation and improved the review of the philanthropy professional.

Philanthropy professionals may or may not understand how much effort is involved on the curatorial side to maintain a good relationship with a collector-donor. For a philanthropy professional, their work is all about philanthropy. Philanthropy is only a small piece of what curators do.

Communication and respect are essential. This generates understanding and reduces the formal organizational and informal professional barriers. It is incredibly important that everybody is working together. However, the bigger the organization, the more complex and difficult it becomes to overcome that barrier.

If there is a separate foundation that employs philanthropy professionals, the metrics have to do mainly with money brought in. That would be very separate from what a curator is expected to contribute. You can’t fault the philanthropy professional for wanting to get good metrics for their job.

As curators, we all would like the art contributed to our institution while the collector and their family are able to enjoy the experience. But if I’m looking at a situation where the philanthropy professional advises that we may have a more fruitful collaboration for both art and funding later that will please the collector’s family, the museum, and the financial goals, I will take their advice.

  • Reciprocal interests: lending and donating

Wendy Reid: From what you have said, curators enjoy developing a relationship with collectors. Lending opportunities are often a priority through this process, even though collectors may also be interested in gifting their art.

Gwendolyn Owens:

Anytime I visit a collector I write down what I’ve seen afterwards. I like to know what interests them overall, but I do remember specific works that might be of interest later on. Borrowing from a collector deepens a relationship.  It gives them a reason to see an exhibition if their art is in that exhibition. It can also increase the value of their art because a curated exhibition brings legitimacy. So, if something has been on view, and the collector decides to donate it and get it appraised, or to sell the work that’s been in an exhibition, it’s like a stamp of approval. As well, without a loan, the collector might not stay in touch. I try to stay in touch with collectors even if they have not loaned work but if there is a loan [then] we have to stay in touch.  On the other hand, borrowing a work that is not useful for the collection or a strong addition for an exhibition just to stay in touch is not necessarily a good idea. If the work is not at the same level as the other works in the gallery, it would be evident to visitors and the collector.

  • Organizational dynamics involving gifts of art

Wendy Reid: Organizational websites for museums and university art collections indicate that formal processes exist for considering whether donations from collectors are pertinent to their collection. Below are two examples of these policies appearing on these institutional websites. The descriptions provide useful insight into how a relationship with a curatorial partner is key.

Example 1: Montréal Museum of Fine Arts

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is not a government-run museum and must self-finance close to 99% of its acquisitions. It nonetheless continues to expand its collections each year thanks to the contributions of its generous donors. The Museum is always open to offers to donate works of art. Such offers are subject to a rigorous selection process. Prospective donors can submit a proposal for a gift of art by completing the form below, including a description of the artwork and information on its history and provenance (if possible). Only complete files with photos will be evaluated.

Upon receiving each offer, the Artwork Acquisitions Manager contacts the prospective donor to confirm whether the artwork has been selected for a more detailed analysis and to request additional information, if required. If the work is selected, it will then be submitted to the Curatorial team for approval.

The work will then be brought to the Museum for further analysis by a curator. The Conservation and Curatorial teams will assess the overall condition of the work and examine its history, significance and fit with the Museum’s collection. If the work is selected, it will be submitted to one of our four acquisition committees. Composed of the Museum’s Director, its Chief Curator, curators, collectors and third-party experts, these committees generally meet four times a year. If the work is ultimately accepted by the acquisition committee, the donor signs the deed of gift to formalize its acquisition by the Museum.

Once the work has been officially acquired by the Museum, a tax receipt can be issued to the donor for the eligible amount of the donation, dated to the signing of the deed of gift. A descriptive label acknowledging the donor is attached to the work in perpetuity.

The entire process can take up to 18 months.

Example 2: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Tangible personal property, such as artwork and books, may be donated to the Museum during your lifetime or by bequest. The Museum must give special consideration to such gifts before it can accept them, and we advise you to contact us if you are contemplating donating tangible personal property to the Museum. (See note on gifts of artwork below.)

A donor of tangible personal property held long term and accepted by the Museum is potentially entitled to claim an immediate income-tax charitable deduction and avoid capital gains taxes. The extent of the allowable income-tax deduction for such a gift, however, would depend on whether the Museum uses the property in a manner related to its tax-exempt mission.

If the use of the contributed property is related to the Museum’s exempt purposes (e.g., gifts of modern or contemporary artwork accepted into our collection), the donor is generally entitled to claim an income-tax charitable deduction for the full fair market value of the property (up to 30% of AGI with a five-year carryover). If the use of the contributed property is unrelated to the Museum’s exempt purposes, or if the donor held the property for 12 months or less before making the donation, then the donor’s income-tax charitable deduction is limited to the cost basis in the property.

If you are considering donating a work of art to the Museum, please contact a curator in the appropriate curatorial department to talk about your proposed gift. The Museum has curatorial departments devoted to Architecture and Design, Drawings, Film, Media and Performance, Painting and Sculpture, Photography, and Prints and Illustrated Books.’

Gwendolyn Owens:

Many institutions now have similar guidelines in their collection management policy. They explain how gifts above a certain value, or a certain number of objects, must come with further gifts to support their care. I would describe these as guidelines, not rules, since in some cases, an object of interest is worth making an exception.


Cultural policy in support of gifts of art

Wendy Reid, reflecting expert comments: The Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board (CCPERB) is a program developed at the same time as UNESCO’s convention regarding the trade of cultural property (1977). Canada is a signatory of this convention.

From the CCPERB website:

CCPERB helps to ensure Canada’s cultural property is protected, preserved, and accessible to the public. CCPERB provides accountability and support to the institutions and individuals who create, acquire, and engage in the exchange of cultural property.  …

The certification of cultural property is a process through which cultural property of outstanding significance is certified for tax purposes. The certification process encourages the transfer of outstanding examples of Canada’s artistic, historic, and scientific heritage from private hands to public collections.

Cultural property refers to artistic, historic, or scientific objects that may fall into any of the following categories:

  • Objects recovered from the soil or waters of Canada (archaeological objects, fossils and minerals)
  • Objects of ethnographic material culture (including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit)
  • Military objects
  • Objects of applied and decorative art
  • Objects of fine art
  • Scientific or technological objects
  • Textual records, graphic records and audio-visual recordings (archival materials including documents, photographs, maps, sound recordings and films)
  • Musical instruments
  • Audio-visual collections (film, video, new media including digital)’

Wendy Reid reflecting expert comments: A donation of cultural property to an accredited charity does receive a charitable tax receipt, much like donations of funds to charities. This is governed by the Canada Revenue Agency’s regulations with regard to donations in kind. CCPERB certification provides enhanced tax credits beyond what a charitable receipt can give – notably, an exemption on capital gains on the increase in value between the time of the donor’s acquisition and the disposition to a designated institution, as well as the ability to apply the tax credit to 100% of the donor’s net income. Of the cultural property submitted for CCPERB certification over the last three years, quarterly reports explain that between 80% and 95% of the objects certified are works of fine art. Works of fine art can have higher values than archives or rare books. However, many donated objects and works of art in Canada do not pass through CCPERB.

Gwendolyn Owens:

I’ve dealt with a lot of people who have small collections or have works that won’t be accepted by CCPERB as they are not necessarily at the level of ‘outstanding significance’.

This is a process that requires time and education for a donor to understand exactly all of the steps that are going to be involved. There is no absolute guarantee that a work will be accepted for certification by CCPERB as it depends on many factors including the reputation of the artist, the quality of the work, and even the justification that is submitted.

Wendy Reid, reflecting anonymous expert comments: Collecting institutions apply to the Department of Canadian Heritage for a designation that is based on a process of assessment regarding professional norms. Only designated institutions are eligible to apply to CCPERB for certification of cultural objects. 

Gwendolyn Owens:

I think you’d have to go institution by institution to see what percentage of their objects are CCPERB-certified. The program has some impact, but specifics across the country are difficult to discern.

There is an issue about market value versus curatorial value. Collectors, like most people, would like to reduce their taxes. Some might offer a donation of something that has a higher market value even if what the curator might appreciate more for the collection is a work of a more modest value.

What the CCPERB board does is authorize a larger than normal tax receipt for something that is deemed to have cultural significance. Again, in principle, a very good idea, but a higher tax receipt may be how the art is chosen as a gift. Whereas from a curatorial perspective, a lesser work in terms of monetary value might be something that in many ways would be more appropriate or appreciated by certain collections. Archives don’t necessarily have a clear market value, even though they have cultural value.

Reception to celebrate the new Visible Storage Gallery in the McLennan Library at McGill University (April 2019) art collectors philanthropic partnership

Reception to celebrate the new Visible Storage Gallery in the MacLennan Library, McGill University (April 2019).

Planned giving and works of art

Gwendolyn Owens:

Working with a collector about a planned gift of all or parts of their collection is a big operation for both sides. To achieve these planned gifts, collaboration between the philanthropy professional and the curatorial staff is important. Because planned gifts can take a lot of time and effort, it is important that both parties in the institution agree that this is worth making the effort. At the Visual Arts Collection at McGill University, we have some planned gifts that will come to us on the passing of the donor. In every case, the list was discussed and vetted by the staff and by development professionals. We don’t want planned gifts of art where we don’t know what we might receive. You don’t want to be in a situation where you get a work of art that is not in good condition, not appropriate for your collection, a fake, or something you need to return to a community. All of those things can come up… when you are not involved in the planning of the specific works in the gift.

From the MMFA website in August 2023:

Currently the MMFA is discouraging unsolicited submissions of gifts of art: ‘Due to the heightened volume of acquisition currently under review, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is temporarily suspending the submission of unsolicited acquisition offers. Please check this website regularly to stay up-to-date on our acquisition program. Thank you for your understanding.’

  • Time strategies

Gwendolyn Owens:

I think the normal preference is to receive the collection in the short term within the donor’s lifetime. Gifts planned for the future can be challenging. A collector donor may change his or her mind many times over the course of a relationship. For this reason, to realize the potential, such gifts often take more sustained effort. Lifetime gifts reduce the possibility that the bequest will be different than expected. A collector might have developed a loyalty to a particular institution, but then get to know another curator in another institution. As a result, they may change their mind and go elsewhere. On the other hand, an agreement might be reached to accept a collection through a Will and then 20 years later when the collection comes to the institution, the institution may have different priorities or have already purchased or received works that are more important by the same artist. Planned gifts can be justified, however. When a collector says: ‘I love being surrounded by my art’, my answer would be ‘I get it, leave it to us as a planned gift’. Some collectors will have their collection in two categories: their passionate collection, which surrounds them, and a lesser collection of things that they buy because it’s interesting. They may want to support younger artists. So, they keep the works for three years and pass them on to institutions. It is important to keep in mind that these gifts require a long-term donor relationship. One doesn’t approach a potential collector donor to make a proposal for a gift of art without a strong relationship already in place. Usually, the individuals who will be approached for planned gifts are older but not people who are nearing the ends of their lives. As a result, the relationship with the donor continues to need nurturing over time.

  • Family influence

Wendy Reid: Planned giving involves a complex legal and human terrain in which relationships evolve. Philanthropy specialists with this expertise are quite conscious of these concerns. However, planned gifts of works of art appear to have their own complexities.

Gwendolyn Owens:

It is awkward for everyone if the art that the donor leaves the museum is not art that is desired for the collection. Most institutions have an option where they can sell it before they accession it, but often that’s very awkward with the donor’s family.

Planned gifts are also sometimes very sensitive for families as relatives may feel that the institution has been too aggressive with their relative.

Wendy Reid: Planned giving experts will recognize this concern in other contexts and other types of planned gifts.

Gwendolyn Owens:

When you’re talking about a lifetime relationship with a family, the last thing you want to have happen when somebody is gone, is that the family becomes upset and feels that you influenced the donor to make certain decisions and now they feel the need to dispute a Will.

Wendy Reid: I gather that this kind of dispute could be devastating and prolongs the process where important works of art are involved, emotional memories are prolonged, and works of art need specialized care.

  • Deaccessioning

Wendy Reid: Deaccessioning works of art in a public art museum occurs in specific circumstances and can be considered problematic (Azmina, 2018; Vecco & Piazzai, 2015; Burgess & Shane, 2011). It breaks with past donor relationships and can generate questions of institutional priorities and serious public relations issues, especially with a community of donors when a donation of art is involved.

Gwendolyn Owens:

Sometimes a bequest includes works of art that are not appropriate for the institution to which they have been left. In this case, it is better for the institution to politely decline the gift rather than try to sell the work.  In other cases, a donor might leave a work of art to an institution with the provision that it be sold for the benefit of the institution, especially in university giving. At a university, planned gifts are important means for financing scholarships and other non-art needs. However, this can be labour intensive for the institution and may also cause confusion with other donors who do not understand that the provision in the Will obliges the institution to sell the work.

Ideally, it is best to have a frank discussion with the collector or their family about why you would prefer not to receive a certain work or group of works as a gift or bequest to avoid the deaccession process.



Collector donors constitute a distinct type of cultural philanthropy. As stakeholders, financial donors support the mission-related activities that the organization undertakes, whereas a gift of art allows the collector donor to participate directly as a partner in fulfilling the organization’s mission. Acknowledging the collector’s personal taste and vision become key factors in developing a donor relationship but this vision can also influence the museum’s interpretation of its mission and its role in the community (Hollein, 2020). As a result, the mission professionals – the curators – are key to developing an art-informed relationship and to negotiating the importance of the gift to the institution’s collection. Curatorial conversations are rich and stimulating for the donors.

However, philanthropic practices also shape the collaborative process, despite appearing more fiscally oriented. Mutual respect, shared expertise and effective communication can facilitate relationships across possible tensions between curatorial vision and philanthropic objectives, particularly across the line between mission-driven operating organizations and their parallel foundations.

These organizational dynamics are both supported and complicated by federal cultural policies and programs that encourage donations of art works of cultural significance to Canadian institutions. As with many cultural policies, other environmental values and logics can shape the benefit available. Nonetheless, the CCPERB program is undoubtedly involved in a minority of gifts of cultural property because of their level of cultural significance. However, charitable tax receipts can be offered by collecting institutions with charitable [or public/government] status for other gifts of tangible property. The question of the proportion of CCPERB-certified works vs. all donations of cultural property might be a worthwhile subject for research.

Because there is often a legacy intention with gifts of art to a public museum, planned giving can be a useful framework to adopt for negotiating the gift. However, donor intentions and institutional needs can change over time before the Will is probated. These changes over time can hamper this planned approach to gifts of art. Consequently, it is preferable to acquire these gifts at the time of offer, provided they are deemed appropriate for the institution’s current collection.

Gifts of tangible property are a distinctive form of philanthropy in collecting institutions. They are both financially significant and significant for growth of a public museum’s collection. Neither public commentary in the media nor current museum management research have yet reflected the human and mission intensity of their nature. More research is encouraged after this early reflection on the phenomenon.

Cet article fait partie de l’édition spéciale de Septembre 2023: Philanthropie et les Arts. Vous pouvez trouver plus d’informations ici.


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