Planning your private museum was all the rage until financial markets collapsed. Back when it was less glamorous and more of a compulsion, Warren Robbins built a private museum of African art, even though he’d never been there:
At first the museum was just a private project. Mr. Robbins had returned to Washington in 1960 with the original 33 objects, bought a house on Capitol Hill, lined some rooms with tropical plants to evoke rain forests and placed his collection on display.
Soon, he said, “the word got out, in an article in The Washington Post, that there was a crazy guy with an African art collection who had never been to Africa.” People started knocking on his door and he welcomed them.
For a time he found some opposition to the idea of a white man operating a museum of art by black people. “I make no apologies for being white,” Mr. Robbins told The Post. “You don’t have to be Chinese to appreciate ancient ceramics.”
By 1963, struck by the idea of creating a real museum, Mr. Robbins bought half of another house on Capitol Hill for $35,000. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass had lived in that house from 1871 to 1877. The first exhibition included Mr. Robbins’s collection and two groups of borrowed objects, from the Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon and the University of Pennsylvania museum.
As his collection grew, Mr. Robbins raised money and bought the rest of the Douglass house, renaming it the Museum of African Art. He later bought an adjoining town house, then another and another. Eventually he assembled 9 town houses, 16 garages and 2 carriage houses.
Warren M. Robbins, Collector of African Art, Dies at 85 (New York Times)