Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has more than two million works of art in its collection. No time to sift through all of them to find those that peak your interest? The museum's V.I.P. Tours program will customize one-hour tours for individuals starting at $400; they can also cater to groups.
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updated 8/20/2008 11:12:45 AM ET 2008-08-20T15:12:45

Even with the growth of commercial art galleries, art fairs and auctions over the past several years, museums are still the best places to get up close and personal with the world’s most sought-after masterpieces. But with crowds in the highest-trafficked institutions tallying in the millions annually, it can be difficult to have an intimate experience—or any kind of experience at all—with the art. At the Louvre, which draws about eight million museum-goers per year, herds of tourists jockey for position, peering over one another’s heads for just a fleeting glimpse of the Mona Lisa.

“The Louvre is a thrilling monument to human creativity,” says Ellen McBreen, director of Paris Muse, which offers 20 private tours of nine different Paris museums, “but visiting it can also be a test of human patience.”

That’s where private tours come in. Options for travelers who want to skip the stress and head straight for the art are plentiful throughout the United States and Europe, including private guides like Paris Muse that partner with museums, and VIP tours arranged by museums themselves. Private tours range from simple one-on-one hours with a guide to whole vacations planned around artwork.

Paris Muse’s ten art experts lead tours starting at 60 euros ($93) for first-time visitors, such as its introduction to the Louvre, as well as focused excursions for experienced art connoisseurs, like its Impressionist Monet tour at the Musée Marmottan-Monet or its look at the architecture of the Louvre. “Five of us have PhDs,” McBreen says. “All of us are native English speakers, with teaching experience at institutions like New York University or the University of California at Berkeley.”

While companies like Paris Muse cut out the middleman by purchasing tickets for you in advance and scheduling tours when the museum is least crowded, some travelers might want to take the experience a step further by avoiding the crowds entirely and visiting a museum when it's closed.

“This is a more contemplative and special way to view the collection,” says Jean Mary Bongiorno, group services manager at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which offers VIP tours with art historians when its doors are closed to the public.

Visitors can choose any aspect of the museum as a focus, be it MoMA’s permanent collection, one of its special exhibitions, or its architecture, and guests also have the option of booking a meal in the private dining room. Tours start at $500 for up to 10 people; each additional person is $50.

“All of our guests receive VIP treatment from the moment they walk through the door,” says Bongiorno. Tours are popular with corporate groups, wedding parties or husbands and wives wanting to make a splash on an anniversary or other special occasion.

Even the staid Smithsonian isn't above making a splash for its VIPs. This year’s Smithsonian Signature Event, to be held in November, includes luxury hotel rooms, private meals and behind-the-scenes tours of parts of its museums that are never open to the public, including the art storage and research facility at the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian’s rare book collections.

Image: Museum of Modern Art, New York, N.Y.
2007 Timothy Hursley
Anyone who's ever visited New York's Museum of Modern Art during peak hours knows the crowds can be difficult to navigate. But for $500, you can have the museum to yourself for an hour. Private tours are offered when MoMA is closed to the public and can be customized to focus on almost any artworks or aspect of the museum. The tours are offered in 13 languages.
“This is very exclusive access,” says Smithsonian Journeys director Amy Kotkin. “You will not be one of the thousands of people roaming through the museums; you’ll be quite separate from the throng.” Guests also attend a private concert by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. This package is priced at about $2,800 per person.

The Smithsonian and other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, offer even higher-end privately guided tours, in the form of themed vacations at destinations worldwide. The Met offers more than 24 destinations, including cultural institutions in Paris, Switzerland, Greece and China, for prices between $6,000 to $12,000 per person (plus airfare). Among Smithsonian Journeys’ more than 150 destinations ($1,200 to $60,000 per person) is a four-day tour of glass art around Seattle that includes a private tour of the artist Dale Chihuly’s home and studio, and a demonstration at the Museum of Glass.

Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.
Tony Rinaldo
Private tours of the permanent collection and special exhibitions at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts are available for a flat fee of $150 for one to 15 people, not including admission fees.
McBreen says she has seen interest in customized cultural tourism grow steadily since she started Paris Muse in 2002, as travelers realize the advantages of circumventing both long lines and the daunting decision of which works to see from a museum’s thousands of offerings, as well as being able to create an experience as luxurious as one desires.

“It’s a little like the difference between sitting in the bleachers and having front-row seats to a concert,” she says. “You’re going to see the show in both cases, but your experience will not be the same.”

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