The symbiotic relationship between the public and private art worlds is a valuable and necessary one. Most of the world’s great public collections were once private – the Guggenheims, the Mellons (Fig. 1) and their ilk have bequeathed to us holdings that now, essentially, belong to us all. Such patronage is by no means dead, as this month’s heartening news of Ian and Mercedes Stoutzker’s gift of major modern and contemporary British works to Tate attests. The new Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens, scheduled to open on 1 June, has been largely funded by the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation; it represents the biggest private gift in the Serpentine’s history.
Indeed, in an age of art-funding austerity private patronage is by now a necessity, not a luxury, for many museums. And yet the British coalition government is currently championing a proposal to cap – at £50,000 or 25 per cent of annual income, whichever figure is greater – tax relief on all charitable donations, just when our arts institutions are at their most vulnerable. This is lamentable: the private sector should not be dissuaded from bridging a gap that the government is arguably remiss to have created in the first place – after all, arts programmes benefit everyone, not just the elite.
We are, I think, in danger of seeing a disconnect between the public and private art worlds. Record-breaking sums are being spent at auction, on works such as Munch’s pastel The Scream (1895; sold for $119.9m at Sotheby’s New York, at the beginning of May) and Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961; sold for $86.9m at Christie’s
New York, the same month). While we do not yet know who bought those particular paintings, it is likely that they, as with so many other high-profile works, are passing from one private collection to another. That public institutions are effectively being priced out of the market should send a clear message to governments to encourage the kind
of private-public co-operation that inevitably turns on tax breaks on gifts to charities and museums. If they fail to do so, it will be an opportunity squandered.
I was in Athens in May during the Greek elections, which threw the beleaguered country into a still greater state of uncertainty. I was there to meet with Greek museum directors, one of whom, Angelos Delivorias of the Benaki Museum, Athens, had the previous week announced a budget cut of 20 per cent. His curatorial staff, spread
over three venues in the capital, will now work four-day weeks only. The museum’s two current exhibitions had both been funded privately – ‘We all have to adjust to this new reality,’ he observed. While Britain and America don’t yet face such an acute public-funding crisis, it is only a matter of degree, and the future for art institutions everywhere will involve working more closely with private collectors, patrons, and foundations. Our ministers would do well to bear this in mind.
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