Christopher Ondaatje salutes a century of art aid from the rescue of Victorian collections to the rebirth of British galleries
Saved! 100 Years of the National Art Collections Fund is the sumptuous book published to accompany the centenary of the National Art Collections Fund, an extraordinary organisation that is peculiarly British in relying on the power of a concerted mass membership to achieve results of national benefit. It also serves as the catalogue of an exhibition on show at the Hayward Gallery in London until January 18, which reveals the remarkable range of the fund's acquisitions: from Arabic world maps and Oriental antiquities to Old Master drawings and English watercolours, from buried treasure and ethnographic specimens to historic paintings and modern art near the cutting edge.
The formula behind the National Art Collections Fund as an independent charity without government or lottery funding is a simple one: a subscribing membership, now 80,000 strong; a straightforward application procedure whereby museums and galleries can seek financial support for acquisitions; a committee of knowledgeable enthusiasts and experts meeting regularly to decide which applications to support; and a quarterly magazine reporting back to members and encouraging further commitment.
Last year, the fund gave more than £4 million to institutions across the UK, its income derived largely from membership, investments and legacies. Recent acquisitions include Old Master paintings by Titian and Van Dyck, British paintings by Hogarth, Zoffany, Constable and John Singer Sargent, photographs by Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron, and modern and contemporary works by artists ranging from Georges Braque to Joseph Beuys.
The impetus behind the founding of the fund in 1903 came from the Blenheim and Hamilton palace sales of the 1880s. They provided a warning that great collections were being broken up and lost to the nation, a process that was much exacerbated by the government's introduction of death duties in 1894.
How-ever, with truly pragmatic British genius, the 1896 Finance Act then introduced the principle of conditional exemption of works of art from taxation provided that the objects were of national or historic interest, fit for one of the national collections. It was thought best that great works should be kept in their traditional homes, but that if they had to be sold, they should find a home in a public collection.
The key figure in the foundation was an influential art critic, D. S. MacColl, who recruited three experts to the cause: the artist Christiana Herringham, the painter and critic Roger Fry and Sir Claude Phillips, keeper of the Wallace Collection. Fry brought on board other members of the Bloomsbury Group but support was more widespread, ranging from George Bernard Shaw to the collector and Conservative MP David Lindsay, Lord Balcarres, (later Lord Crawford) who became the first chairman of the National Art Collections Fund.
Notable works purchased in the early years, which are featured in the Hayward Gallery exhibition, include: the first Whistler painting to enter an English museum collection, in 1905; Velazquez's The Rokeby Venus , which was eventually gifted to the National Gallery in 1906 after a vigorous fundraising campaign; and Rodin's The Burghers of Calais , presented to the nation in 1914, again as an outright gift. Rodin was then still living; this purchase was the first commitment by the fund to the art of its own time, a commitment that has more recently been renewed. As the exhibition reveals, the fund has been able to embrace the unfashionable, such as the great Guercino Erminia and the Shepherd , purchased for Birmingham 40 years ago when such pictures were still ignored, and the challenging, such as Georg Baselitz's stark painted figure purchased for Edinburgh, as well as Anish Kapoor's stunning stainless-steel creation Turning the World Inside Out , bravely acquired for Bradford.
The work of the fund goes beyond acquisitions. Its independence from government and business and its wide network of contacts has enabled it to spearhead two remarkable campaigns: to persuade the government to lift the burden of VAT from museums, and to abolish admission charges at national museums, a campaign that has led to a huge rise in visits to national museums and galleries. The fund has also been active in the debate about how to preserve the national artistic inheritance, at a time when works of art are costly in real terms but when there are more individuals and companies that can, given the right encouragement, support museums.
Time and again initial support for an acquisition from the fund has been the key that has unlocked other donations. The fund has acted as a catalyst, encouraging others, whether they be individuals, corporate groups, government departments or, more recently, the national lottery, to provide backing. But this beneficent process is increasingly under strain.
Whatever the role of private initiative, the government has an enduring responsibility to identify appropriate ways to acquire great and instructive works for the nation. As long ago as 1912, a committee chaired by Lord Curzon was set up to examine the retention of important pictures in the country, and the subject was revisited after the debacle surrounding the sale of Mentmore Towers (built for a Rothschild, later owned by Lord Rosebery) in 1977, leading to the foundation in 1980 of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, set up in memory of those who died for their country. Now, Sir Nicholas Goodison, who has been chairman of the Stock Exchange, a trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and chairman of the National Art Collections Fund (from 1986-2002), is about to produce a report at the request of the Treasury on taxation and funding arrangements for works of art.
What is needed is not vast sums of government money, although some official funding would be invaluable, but a more discriminating approach to donations by way of modest tax concessions for businesses and individuals wishing to support the nation's heritage.
The recent centenary conference of the National Art Collections Fund hit the headlines as a result of Sir Nicholas Serota's keynote address - seen as a swipe at attempts to save Old Masters rather than modern art. But the practical ideas that emerged during the conference went largely unreported.
The recommendations of Goodison's report, about to be published, will please the conference's speakers with at least three of its themes. First, the funding level of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, as the government's own fund of last resort, needs to be increased. It used to receive £12 million a year, which was cut to a low of £2 million in 1998, and now stands at £5 million. "The fund needs to receive £20 million a year," Goodison urges. Second, "Individual donors of works of art and other important objects should be allowed to set the gross value of the work against their incomes before calculation of income tax and at the same time eliminate liability to capital taxes."
Third, tax incentives for businesses should be extended. Here, I think we can learn something from the model, introduced in France last year, that allows a 90 per cent tax break to businesses in certain circumstances, and from experience in America regarding the gift of exceptional works, refined over many years. The simple encouragement to give money in a straightforward manner through an individual's tax return, which allows a generous write-off, has produced a much more favourable climate of philanthropic giving in the US, and, indeed, in Canada. I fear that we in Britain will have to pay closer attention to this if we are ever going to solve the many problems besetting Britain's leading museums.
Goodison's review has identified the great difficulties that museums have in finding money from their own budgets for acquisitions. Some people do not think that acquisitions matter, but Goodison profoundly disagrees. "New purchases are a key part of the management of a collection. They can stimulate the interest and enthusiasm of the visiting public, can reflect pride in the cultural backgrounds of people in the community, and, of course, they record, as some museums should, the continuous changes in society, design and taste. Government finances are always under strain, and what we need to find is other sources of finance for acquisitions." There has to be a closer relationship between museums and private donors.
For all the struggles of our museums, Saved! is an exhibition that is an exceptionally heartening experience for the artistic riches it reveals. It comes at a time of a remarkable renewal in popular interest in museums and galleries and in heritage, an interest reflected by the boom in history television programmes epitomised by those of Simon Schama and David Starkey. This interest, when allied with government support, is a potent force: it makes Britain's museums and galleries, with their commitment to access and understanding, the envy of most other countries. There is a transformation going on, not only in London where the millennial refurbishments have brought a renewed vigour, but across the nation, with institutions in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford and Sheffield in the process of rebirth. A museum renaissance is under way, through a partnership between government, business, charities and private donors; and the National Art Collections Fund is a key player. The catalogue of its centenary exhibition shows how worth while efforts to save great works of art for the nation's museums can be.
Christopher Ondaatje is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and on the advisory panel of the Goodison Review.
Saved! 100 Years of the National Art Collections Fund
Author - Richard Verdi
Publisher - Hayward Gallery and the National Art Collections Fund in association with Scala Publishers
Pages - 312
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 1 85759 304 9