Credit: Jamie Stukenberg

Thirty years ago, Bruce Rauner and Carl Thoma were two of four partners in the private equity firm GTCR, which Thoma had cofounded in 1980. They were pioneers in venture capital and leveraged business buyouts, and profited mightily before the partnership broke up in 1998.

Rauner eventually put a chunk of those (and subsequent) profits into a political career, spending nearly $60 million of his own cash on his losing campaign in this year’s governor’s race alone.

Thoma, meanwhile, co-founded a new company (now known as Thoma Bravo) and spent some of his money on art. He and his wife, Marilynn Thoma, who’ve been benefactors to many Chicago cultural organizations, began buying art for their own walls in the 1970s, and over the decades have amassed something much larger. The Thoma Collection now includes more than 1,200 works, spread among four broad categories: digital and electronic, Spanish Colonial, post-World War II painting and sculpture, and Japanese bamboo.

In 2014 they established the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation, a nonprofit that operates Art House, a public venue in an adobe house in Santa Fe (where they have a home), and Orange Door, a Chicago facility that’s mostly a warehouse.

The Foundation, with assets of $156 million, also provides financial support for research, publication, exhibitions, and educational programs in its areas of interest, and lends works from its collection to other institutions.

Art House mounts several annual exhibits of mostly digital art and has regular public hours Thursdays through Saturdays. But the low- profile Chicago facility is off the general public radar. It’s open only by appointment, and then on a limited basis, mainly for school groups and curators. And if you happened to pass its vintage building in the Fulton Market warehouse district, you wouldn’t guess that it houses a meticulously organized treasure chest.

Last week, however, an open house attended by a few dozen denizens of the local arts community provided a look inside. Some of the treasure was on display in exhibits spread through four small galleries, and some in a larger central space, mostly occupied by row upon row of rolling storage panels, hung cheek-by-jowl on both sides with paintings that range from bumptious Chicago Imagism to imperious 18th century Latin American portraits.

This central space was dominated by a towering, beaded Nick Cave creature (Soundsuit, 2014), a Robert Rauschenberg windmill Eco-Echo, 1992-’93, and Iván Navarro’s walk-in phone-booth-size light-and-mirrors piece, Reality Show (Black), 2010. A quartet of exquisite Japanese baskets sat on a counter next to a vintage jukebox, while, steps away in a black box gallery, 24 million pixels swirled in a universe of nonrepeating patterns across a trio of computer screens, in Leo Villareal’s Particle Field, 2017.

It’s a dazzling stash. Walking through the orange door felt like entering a secret clubhouse and finding it stacked with enchanting booty. And it’s not unique. As art market values—driven by global investors, international fairs, and a hot auction scene—have skyrocketed and collecting’s become, more than ever, the favorite status game of the very rich, there’s been a proliferation of new foundation-owned private museums.

Some are small, and they’re sometimes housed on the private grounds of their founders; others, like the Broad in Los Angeles or the nearly-in-Chicago Lucas Museum, are huge. The smaller institutions attracted the attention of the Senate Finance Committee a few years ago; there was concern that they might not be offering enough pubic access to qualify for tax exemption, which is, in effect, a taxpayer- funded subsidy. But, as tax law expert Steven Rosenthal of the D.C.-based Tax Policy Center confirmed in a phone interview last week, nothing substantial has been done, even by Trump’s 2017 tax law, to curtail their advantages.

Donations to either an existing public museum like the Art Institute of Chicago or to your own private museum are tax deductible at market value.

But the Art Institute is fussy about what it’ll accept. It might not want your art, and, even if it does—unless you’re Stefan Edlis—you probably won’t have control over how and when your gift’s exhibited. If it’s exhibited.

Your own foundation and museum, on the other hand, will likely be pleased to accept your contributions and eager to display them. You’ll have to prove to the government that the museum is offering some public benefit—usually by posting public hours or lending out works—but all the expenses of housing and maintaining your collection will also become tax deductible.

This arrangement has been described as the art world version of eating your cake and having it too.

Compared to battling even deeper pockets in the down-and-dirty world of Illinois politics?

Definitely a piece of cake.   v