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April 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1453

Purchasing power

Securing acquisitions for museums and galleries is a complicated business at the best of times. Inflationary pressures, heavy demands on limited resources and restraints on what funders can provide all make the process a unique challenge to navigate. Success requires deftly balancing the expertise and creativity of curators and directors with the generosity of collectors, as well as the knowledge and assistance of colleagues in the art market. 

A glance at the acquisitions supplements that have been published in this Magazine reveals not only very impressive personal gifts and bequests to museums but also, for British institutions, the vital role of the Acceptance-in-Lieu (AIL) and Cultural Gifts schemes to steer works to a public home. If purchases by a museum from the market or individuals are being attempted, however, they invariably require a portfolio of funding from public, charitable and private sources. Here the support of longstanding funders, such as the Art Fund, is arguably more important than ever. It is critical in terms of the actual money granted, but the visibility of the Art Fund’s support for acquisitions also provides an endorsement that can inspire others to join the campaign to secure a work of art. There are other helpful sources of support for non-national collections, including the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Scottish National Fund for Acquisitions. Yet the resources of these funds are limited: the latest available figures show their annual budgets for grants at £725,000 and £204,000 respectively. 

When pre-eminent works are pursued as acquisitions in a buoyant art market the assistance of major grant-givers must be called upon: that of the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) and the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF). In March 2023 the NLHF issued its new ten year strategy, marking a considerable realignment of its priorities, with a fresh emphasis on long-term support for environmental and community focused projects. However, in its final paragraph the strategy reassuringly states ‘we can respond swiftly and act when necessary to [. . .] unique situations and opportunities. This could mean supporting acquisitions of exceptional heritage’. Meanwhile the NHMF, which is administered through the NLHF, remains the vital ‘fund of last resort’ that since 1980 has made grants for safeguarding outstanding items. Both of these funding bodies have successfully distributed an admirable amount of their monies across Britain and remarkably important cultural treasures have been secured for collections with their support. But it remains the case that they simply cannot meet all of the compelling demands made on them and for far too long the political will to correct this situation and increase governmental support has been lacking. Individual Treasury grants to underwrite museum purchases are a distant and fond memory. The state of the market and the challenges that museums and galleries face mean wealthier overseas buyers often triumph when major works of art become available. 

One particularly effective route through which this can be prevented for especially ambitious acquisitions is the establishment of a partnership between institutions. Joint acquisitions in Britain have a long and illustrious history. An incomplete survey highlighting only paintings purchased in this way would include, for example, Nicolas Poussin’s Finding of Moses (1651; Cardiff and London) in 1988, Anthony van Dyck’s Portrait of François Langlois (1630s; Birmingham and London) in 1997 and Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (both 1556–59; Edinburgh and London) in 2009 and 2012. These were followed by James Guthrie’s In the orchard (1886; Edinburgh and Glasgow) in 2012 and, spreading its appeal even further, John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows (1831), which was purchased in 2013 as part of a partnership project by institutions in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Ipswich and Salisbury. It is especially pleasing to see some more recent and inventive partnerships in London; a notable instance of this is the joint purchase by Tate and the Museum of the Home in Hoxton of Rebecca Solomon’s A young teacher (1861). The painting is currently displayed in Tate Britain’s nineteenthcentury galleries and will move on to the Museum of the Home in the autumn of 2024. 

A number of joint acquisitions have also made important contributions to institutional collecting in the United States. For example, in 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired together William Kentridge’s multimedia installation The refusal of time (2012). More modest purchases can also reap great research benefits; in 2020 the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, purchased a group of twenty pigments in bottles that O’Keeffe used, which are valuable for understanding her technique and choice of materials. 

The 2023 acquisition of Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Mai (c.1776) moves this type of collaboration to a much larger scale and an international stage, through the initiative to make the purchase jointly by the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The Mai case has been widely cited as unprecedented, but it is not in fact the first time an institution in the United Kingdom has engaged in an international joint venture of this sort. Between 2015 and 2020 Tate worked with the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, over a series of shared acquisitions to the benefit of both institutions and their visitors; thirty-five works by twenty-four contemporary Australian artists were purchased. This initiative was funded with 2.75 million Australian dollars from the Quantas Foundation. 

In Europe there are also examples of international collaboration that have focused on major historic purchases with far more hefty price tags. In February 2016 a partnership between the Dutch State and the French Republic was successfully negotiated, resulting in 160 million euros being spent to jointly secure for the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the so-called Rothschild Rembrandts, the Portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit (both 1634). At present they can be seen in the Gallery of Honour in the heart of the Rijksmuseum. They had previously been hung on either side of Éric de Rothschild’s bed in his Parisian home. 

Surely more collaborative initiatives of this sort should be anticipated and warmly welcomed, as long as the objects in question are safe to travel. If the legal, contractual, logistical and conservation requirements are met, the number of people who would be able to see and enjoy the acquisitions will be greatly increased, thereby expanding access and research possibilities and delighting curators, funders and, indeed, politicians. This is a new form of ‘soft’ cultural power, signifying shared values and amplifying the resonance of art in a way that transcends national boundaries.