Often, when an artwork in the UK comes up for sale, much is made about how it must be saved for the nation – to prevent it falling into the hands of a collector of museum abroad. When countries such as Greece request the return of their artefacts however, their statements are criticised as being purely nationalistic.
Tate chief attacks ‘save for the nation’ art policy
Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent
Wednesday November 12, 2003
Sir Nicholas Serota, the most powerful man in the museum world, dramatically broke ranks with his colleagues yesterday to challenge the idea that vast sums of money should be spent to stop important works of art leaving Britain.
The director of the Tate museums delivered a devastating indictment of the reflex to blindly save treasures “for the nation” when foreign collectors or museums try to buy them, a sacred cow of cultural policy until now.
He claimed that such fire-brigade appeals to chauvinism and national pride had “skewed” the way galleries were spending their tiny and shrinking acquisitions budgets.
Still more controversially, Sir Nicholas seemed to question whether the National Gallery was wise to be spending up to £25m of mostly lottery money to keep Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks in its Sainsbury wing.
His remarks prompted the newly installed director of the National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, who is stitching together a complicated deal to stop the painting going to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, to put his hand to his head in seeming despair.
“We are still a rich country and I hope that a way can be found to keep the Raphael in the National Gallery,” Sir Nicholas told a conference in London yesterday.
“But the sum involved, amounting to £20m or perhaps £25m from various public sources, is huge. There are no prizes for predicting the likely press reaction to a plea which sought to commit an equivalent sum from public funds to create an endowment to build serious collections of 20th and 21st century art in, say, six regional museums across the country.” The trigger for public spending on art had become the “imminent threat of export, rather than imminent opportunity to enrich our collections”, he insisted.
Such kneejerk buying of threatened historic pieces also further strengthened the fallacy that “great art ended some time in the mid-19th century”.
Sir Nicholas appeared to turn cherished orthodoxies on their head in his speech at a centenary conference called by the National Art Collections Fund. The fund has been instrumental in campaigns to save everything from the Rokeby Venus to Canova’s Three Graces from the predations of American collectors.
“I do wonder whether, as a nation, we care too much about what happens to be there as a result of history. I worry even more that we care too much for the past and not enough for the present and the near present,” he said.
Instead, with acquisition budgets frozen at 1980s levels and prices spiralling, Sir Nicholas proposed nothing short of a revolution in the way museums and the government define British “heritage”, arguing that masterpieces should be “shared” with institutions abroad, and money should be concentrated on buying modern work rather than trying to hold on to everything the country has.
He argued for a new test to be added to the three now used to decide whether an export bar should be placed on a work of art to stop it leaving the country.
This fourth test would compare its home in this country with its likely destination abroad.
He could not accept that a work being saved by a private collection in this country was “necessarily preferable to the sale to a public collection abroad”.
His heresy did not end there.”The belief that work is always better seen in a British public collection than in a foreign public collection needs to be tested by reasoned argument rather than simple appeals to national chauvinism,” he argued.
“Does a public collection in the UK really need a slightly faded Girtin watercolour at considerable costs to the public purse… when loans could be available from the British Museum, V&A or the Whitworth in Manchester?”
Rather than fighting a constant rearguard action, British galleries should be encouraged to plug gaping holes in their collections of European, world and 20th century art, in particular, he said.
All but two of 16 major grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund totalling near £70m had been used to “save items already here”, while only 10 of 250 objects acquired last year with help from the Art Collection Fund came from abroad. “We simply do not encourage our museums to consider acquiring a major object from foreign collections or sources.”
He added: “Why, for instance, has no serious attempt been made to represent late 19th-century German painting in the National Gallery, where we already have a fine French collection but continue to spend large sums on acquiring further [French] paintings?”
Later Sir Nicholas stressed he was fully behind the National’s bid to acquire the Raphael, and Mr Saumarez Smith avoided rising to the bait. He said he was “broadly sympathetic” to Sir Nicholas’s views on acquisitions: “There is no doubt national museums and galleries should be able to acquire work more widely.”
Others were less charitable in private, accusing the Tate supremo of being “slightly self-serving”, given that his empire would be the major beneficiary of any drive to buy more contemporary work.
Sir Nicholas, for his part, said he had made no secret of his long-term ambition to fill the holes in the British holdings of 20th century art, and claimed the Tate would be happy if the bulk of the new acquisitions went to regional museums with already sizeable modern or foreign collections.
David Fleming of the National Museums and Galleries in Merseyside pointed out that more people still went to galleries outside London than in the capital.
But last night it emerged that the Tate was having its own problems getting hold of Joshua Reynolds’ masterpiece, Portrait of Omai, which had been supposedly “saved” by an anonymous donor who stepped in with £12.5m to buy it in the spring.
With the export bar which has kept it in Christie’s stores now expired, the Tate is no nearer prising it from the buyer, who is believed to be the Irish bloodstock mogul and property tycoon John Magnier.
But Sir Nicholas last night refused to be panicked that he was now involved in an elaborate game of bluff.
“The stumbling block is that this is a picture that arouses a lot of passion,” he said. “To give it up is a great wrench.”