The row between art galleries and donors is bigger than bringing home the Bacon

With squeezed budgets, British museums are increasingly relying on private patronage, for financial support and donation of artworks. Yet while the former has faced close scrutiny in recent years, the latter have received little attention.

Now Tate faces potential legal action from one donor, Barry Joule, over his disputed claim that the British gallery has not honoured the terms under which he donated 1,200 sketches, photographs and documents from the studio of his late friend, the artist Francis Bacon.

Under the 2004 agreement, Joule says that Tate agreed to stage an exhibition of the material, a not uncommon stipulation when donors hand over parts of their collection. Often keen to champion the artist whose work they have donated, major shows inevitably also bring the donors social cachet and potentially raise the value of the artwork they still own.

Tate say of the Joule donation that it “has been catalogued and made available for the public to access, as with all material in Tate’s archive. Items from this archive were also exhibited in a display at Tate Britain nel 2019. Tate has proposed a meeting with Barry Joule in September.”

Tra 2019 e 2020 figures reveal Tate was donated art worth a total of £13.2m by private patrons. In the same period, the National Gallery received paintings to the value of £12m and the National Portrait Gallery accepted £1.6m worth of art.

Arts Council England runs a scheme in which the wealthy can donate art with a percentage of the value offset against tax. Last year the government wrote off £40m in public revenue, receiving artwork to the total value of £65m. The Arts Council says each work is vetted to ensure its importance and quality before being placed in a museum. Nel 2020 il Ashmolean in Oxford received paintings by Frank Auerbach and a drawing by RB Kitaj. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art took a minimalist sculpture by the American sculptor Fred Sandback.

Jack Kirkland is a collector who sits on the Tate’s acquisitions committee for photography. He used the Arts Council scheme to donate his family’s collection of contemporary photography to the museum. “It made it a transparent process and involved several third parties checking the value, significance and condition of the works so there could be no sense of any impropriety on either my or Tate’s part," lui dice. “It was part of the collective effort on the part of Tate curators and patrons to really create a photography collection at Tate.”

Yet of the almost 500 new acquisitions made last year by Tate, 223 were privately organised and did not involve the Arts Council scheme. One common practice is for commercial art galleries to insist that if a collector wants to buy the best work by the hottest artists, they must also buy a second for a museum. By placing the work within an institution it raises the prestige of the artist, and the gallery is able to increase the price on future sales.

Critics say this can leave museums beholden to the art market. “If the museum doesn’t take the artwork when offered, they risk losing vital funding and support from a patron,” said one former salesperson of London’s biggest art galleries. “It’s not how the whole system works, but museums do risk being dictated to by opportunists. And it’ll happen more as funding declines for the arts.” The salesperson, who has turned over millions of pounds worth of sales in their career, described the practice as “BOGO” – buy one, gift one.

"[This] tends to happen when an artist whose inventory is limited hits the market in high demand. If a collector buys an artwork to give to a museum, in turn the collector is much more likely to be able to acquire an artwork for their private collection.” The dealer says that in their experience, nothing is ever put in writing. “They will hint at the museum they have in mind. The calibre of the institution will affect whether the commercial gallery decides to push them up the waiting list for an artwork. Donating to Tate will have more of a sway than, say, a regional museum.”

A Tate spokesman said that while the museum “is not party to discussions between commercial galleries and private collectors … [we do not] simply accept works of art offered by private collectors for donation. All the works Tate brings into the national collection are carefully selected by our curators based on their own research, in line with our wider collection strategy, and subject to a rigorous process of review and approval by our Directors and Trustees.” Both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery said that those institutions, pure, had never knowingly benefitted from a deal of this kind.

Alain Servais, who owns a collection particularly focused on emerging artists, says that in the 20 years he has been buying art he’s been asked numerous times to donate a second work when negotiating a purchase. “Every time I receive this kind of proposal from a gallery I throw it away. If I miss this work, fine, there is other art to buy. I don’t like it morally because it pushes the agenda of commercial dealers to the forefront and it puts museums, who receive so many of these kinds of offers, under pressure.”

If they accept stipulations, institutions may restrict their ability to programme freely or react to changing trends. In recent years Tate, like museums globally, has come under pressure to diversify their programming and collections. Though Tate director Maria Balshaw reassured Joule that his gift was still “very much appreciated” it is likely that the already much-venerated figure of Bacon is felt to have had enough exposure, while female artists and artists of colour from the same generation have not received their due.

The International Council of Museums recently proposed redefining museums from being institutions that “acquire” art and artefacts to being “participatory and transparent” bodies “in active partnership with and for diverse communities”. Servais says he supports the move. “Museums have got less and less public support over the last 20 anni, while the one percent have seen their wealth consolidate – museums are simply not in a position to both collect and share knowledge. They have to make the choice as to which is the most important. It’s pretty clear in my opinion, if they concentrated on education and merely borrowed artworks, they could more surely maintain their independence. The public don’t care who owns the work when they see it in a show.”

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