Transcript from Why Save Art for the Nation?
A lecture given at the Art Fund Conference by Nicholas Serota.

There are now very few areas of public life in which we are happy to deploy the language and sentiments of our Edwardian forbears without reflection or apology. Reform of the House of Lords is one of the rare issues in which the argument in current debates would have been startlingly familiar to an Edwardian ear. The subject of this conference is perhaps another. Most of the issues and many of the terms of our discussion today are precisely those which preoccupied and motivated Christiana Herringham, DS MacColl, Roger Fry and Claude Phillips in their creation of The Art Fund in 1903.

All of us who still seek to persuade governments and benefactors, too often without success, that the activity of building collections is a paramount responsibility for museums, reach instinctively for ways in which our endeavour can be dressed in the appealing clothes of “Saving Art for the Nation”. We need look no further than Tate’s campaign on Portrait of Omai, by Joshua Reynolds or the National Gallery’s on Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks. But as we celebrate one hundred years of The Art Fund, I have to ask myself whether Christiana Herringham’s worthy garments are becoming a little threadbare. Do we now require an approach to collecting which is less skewed by appeals to national pride? Do we need to rely less on pulling emotional and chauvinistic heart strings and more on developing arguments about the value of artefacts and collections to contemporary society?

Later sessions in this conference will examine some of our assumptions about ‘nation’ and ‘heritage’. Others will deal with urgent questions about how can we prevent significant items from leaving “these shores” to use the evocative phrase of Sir Francis Chantrey, the sculptor whose Bequest was intended to enrich the national collection by buying contemporary art. I want to concentrate on the questions of why we build collections in the first place, of what they should comprise and for whom they are made. In so doing, I hope to advance the argument for acquisitions and explain why we have to move beyond understandable appeals to “deliver, rescue or protect from impending or potential danger” to quote the Oxford English dictionary definition of “save”.

A few weeks ago I visited an extraordinary private collection of Victorian art which has been put together with limited means over the past fifty years. No-one is this audience is likely to regard me as a particular enthusiast for Victorian art, notwithstanding my admiration for Turner and Whistler and a confession that I once seriously considered attempting a thesis on aspects of Leighton’s approach to classicism. However, I was bowled over by the quality and painterly beauty of some of the works in the collection, notably a group of landscapes by Fred Walker and associates, dating from the 1870s. I was struck by the cumulative impact of a collection which was the product of intense passion and imagination, but also scholarship, research and steady determination. As an ensemble, the paintings, furniture, ceramics, objects and sculpture provided an exceptional insight into the mind, aesthetic ambition and values of a succession of intellectual positions over a period of fifty years. Together they stimulated reflection on the continuities and differences of taste between then and now and on the identity and aspirations of Victorian society. The experience of the collection also gave me a greater understanding of developments in the succeeding half century as extensions and reactions to that tradition.

Now a public collection has a different purpose and role, even though many of the greatest public collections are based on accumulations of works that have been put together by curators working from personal enthusiasms. Public collections are expressions of the identity of a community, whether it be local, regional, national or occasionally international, as is the aspiration of those great institutions which regard themselves as “universal” museums. The existence of a public collection necessitates and nurtures study and research, the gathering of knowledge and a developing appreciation of ourselves and of our relation to each other. Our understanding of our own strengths, achievements and limitations is profoundly affected by awareness of earlier cultures and societies. We can recognise the material achievement in our own age, but few can fail to be humbled by the power of emotion, the vivid and contemporary sense of grief presented, say, in the Colmar altarpiece in comparison with a present day image of personal suffering conveyed in countless photographic images of war, holocaust or famine in the late twentieth century. Public collections, and their associated interpretation through research and scholarship, are one answer to the perennial questions of existence posed most memorably by Gauguin in his masterpiece, Where have we come from, what are we and where are we going?, now hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

And while existing collections may yield new insights as a result of study, conservation and research, the addition of new acquisitions can transform our appreciation of an artist, period or movement. Closed collections, even those as great as that of the Wallace Collection in Hertford House, suffer the limitations of all time capsules. They may perfectly reflect the taste and ambitions of the period, but are always wedded to a moment, like a still taken from a movie.

And yet given the priorities of successive governments, which have obliged almost every national museum to abandon spending grant in aid on acquisitions, we cannot expect to collect across the full range and without limitation. Choices have to be made by Trustees and funding bodies. Inevitably we find ourselves establishing strategic priorities. However, when funding is short or other factors intervene, such as the application for an export licence, these defining priorities are difficult to maintain. The criteria for the consideration of an export licence, established by the Waverly Committee in 1952, have been remarkably robust for more than fifty years. As no-one here will need reminding, objects are assessed against three tests. Is the work so closely connected with our history or national life that its departure would be a misfortune? Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance and finally is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history? The first criterion is essentially concerned with patrimony. It covers works which have been made here, or which are a significant record of social, political, economic or cultural history. It is founded on a belief that objects will have greatest meaning for their viewers and value for society by being seen in the context in which they were created or, in the case of collections, assembled. However, a literal interpretation of this test, especially when coupled with the second aesthetic criterion, could mean that no works by Turner, Constable, Blake, Henry Moore or Francis Bacon would ever be allowed to depart for foreign collections. None of us would want British achievements to be confined in this way. The presence of Turner’s Whalers at the Metropolitan Museum in New York surely does more for Turner’s reputation and, indeed, for our own understanding of his unique qualities as a painter and his distinctive contribution to the development of 19th century European painting, than would the inclusion of this canvas in the hang of the Turner Bequest in the Clore Gallery.

In practice the laudable ambition of seeing British art in a wider context is much more difficult to achieve than my example suggests. In the real world nothing is so simple or straightforward. An instinct to conserve naturally asserts itself when the work in question comes from a historic collection, or when it has a historic connection with a part of the United Kingdom. Even when a work has been hidden, often unknown or unrecognised for generations in a private house, there is nevertheless an impulse to use its appearance on the market to enhance a regional or national collection. This is an entirely understandable response on the part of a curator, but we should be prepared to question the presumption, both for the sake of the work and for our national patrimony. The belief that a 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 or social chauvinism. Even the apparently simple choice between a public collection abroad in the UK and a private collection abroad is not quite so straightforward as it might appear. We have to remember how the anguish which accompanied Paul Mellon’s regular forays into the market for British art in the sixties was followed in the late seventies by delight at his creation of the Center for British Art at Yale in its beautiful and measured building by Louis Kahn. And where would studies in British art now be, if it were not for the contribution of the Paul Mellon Centre in London and the continuing activity of Yale University Press as the major academic publisher of studies by scholars in the field.

Of course, Mellon was exceptional and not every private collector can be relied upon to continue to build and hold collections in the long term, let alone transfer them to university or other public collections where they will be freely available for all to study and enjoy. But increasingly I feel the need for a fourth ‘Waverley’ test, probably subsequent to a ruling on the present three criteria, which would evaluate the benefit of ‘saving’ a work for the nation by comparing its likely home in this country and its likely destination abroad. I cannot, for instance, accept that saving from export through acquisition by a private collection in this country, as the so called Ridley Rules allow, is necessarily preferable to the sale to a public collection abroad. I believe that national patrimony can only be truly ‘national’ if it is accompanied, at least in the long term, by an opportunity for public study, enjoyment and appreciation. Where private acquisition is made under the terms of Ridley I would want to insist that acquisition was accompanied by an irrevocable commitment to bequeath the work to a public collection, with all the accompanying tax advantages.

Furthermore, it is not always self evident that acquisition by a public collection in the United Kingdom is necessarily a better solution than public exhibition abroad. Does a public collection in the UK really need a slightly faded Girtin watercolour at considerable cost to the public purse, simply because there are none or few in the region when loans could be available from the British Museum, V&A or the Whitworth, Manchester? As museum professionals, we need to place the public above institutional interest and not to assume that the two are necessarily identicial. In this spirit we have to develop new forms of ownership where appropriate, including partnership with foreign institutions, as Tate has done with the Whitney and Pompidou on the Bill Viola video currently on view at Tate Modern and is about to do with another video installation by Bruce Nauman. In short, we have to be both less possessive and more imaginative in sharing items which are already in the public domain.

So far, of course, I have been speaking of national patrimony as currently defined by government and most of the funding bodies. The export review process, Waverley and the activities of most of the funding bodies all have the ambition of ensuring that what we have we continue to hold. The “heritage” is regarded as a finite corpus. This corpus is augmented slowly by the passing of time as the fifty year rule rolls steadily forward to include objects made in the 1950s. It may also be extended by changes in taste which give recognition to artists or periods hitherto regarded as ‘below the salt’. However, the process of ‘saving’, or preventing the loss of items regarded as being of value, is entirely reactive. It is also unpredictable in timing, given that the appearance of works on the market is governed by death, divorce and financial crisis. Very little forward planning is possible and even the best conceived strategic plan for building collections can be knocked sideways by the sudden need to react to yet another ‘loss’.

The casualty in this process is any attempt to acquire items for our collections, other than those which are at risk. This is especially true for items which might be regarded as enlarging the heritage. Works which form part of a European or world cultural achievement, and which might be brought to the United Kingdom, are now rarely considered. This gives rise to a particular problem in those fields in which our private collections have historically been weak. In this respect, I am bound to point to the acute gaps in the field of modern and contemporary art, where we have failed to nurture the creation of major collections of twentieth century art since those made by Frank Stoop and Samuel Courtauld in the 1920s.

The original purpose of the Lottery, and of the Heritage Lottery Fund in particular, was to make good deficiencies, to remedy neglect and to enhance rather than simply to replace existing public funding. For museums, the Lottery originally offered an opportunity to do something distinctly different, rather than simply plugging holes in current provision. But in practice almost 90% of the lottery monies for acquisitions, themselves under fire at regular intervals in the last eight years, has been used to secure works which were already in this country rather than to bring works from abroad. The trigger has been imminent threat of export, rather than imminent opportunity to enrich our collections.

HLF grants of £1.1 million to the Tate to capture Mondrian’s ravishing Church at Zouteland from America, or £8 million to the National Gallery to acquire Seurat’s The Channel of Gravellines here on five year loan from the Berggruen Collection, are shining exceptions to a rule. Otherwise, 14 major grants totalling more than £60 million, have all been used to ‘save’ items already here. A review of The Art Fund grants discloses a similar weighting. In 2001 and 2002 more than 250 objects were acquired for UK collections with assistance from The Art Fund. Fewer than 10 of these came from abroad. We simply do not encourage our curators and museums to consider acquiring a major object from foreign collections or sources. 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 paintings made in France during the period.

Politicians and officials may be criticised but have no difficulty in making a case for using public funds to save another Stubbs, Raphael or Titian and indeed I have myself successfully argued for such support. But I do wonder whether, as a nation, we care too much about what happens to be here as a result of history. I worry even more that we care too much for the past and not enough for the present and near present. We are still a rich country and I hope that a way can be foundd to keep the Raphael in the National Gallery. But the sum involved, amounting to at least £20 million 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 of £20 million from public funds to create an endowment fund which would be used to build serious collections of twentieth and twenty-first century art in say six regional museums across the country. If we want people to appreciate the culture of our own times rather than simply to assume that great art ended some time in the mid-nineteenth century, we have to make it possible for people living outside London, that is the residents of Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton and Bristol and those living within one hours ‘drive time’of these cities, to have regular encounters with modern and contemporary art. That should not be such an absurd ambition. Look at a much smaller country, The Netherlands. There, in Amsterdam, Otterlo, Rotterdam, The Hague and Eindhoven, we find collections of twentieth century art, better than any in the UK with the exception of Tate and Edinburgh. In addition, there are serious collections of contemporary art in Tilburg, Gronigen and Maastricht.

The present and recent past, of course, has always been the territory and ambition of the Contemporary Art Society, founded seven years after The Art Fund in 1910. But The Art Fund itself has also demonstrated a vigorous commitment to adding to the heritage, as well as saving it. Many of the acquisitions which it has assisted over the past decade have been markedly more risky than those which it supported in its early years. I welcome and salute this development because it is yet another demonstration that the Fund believes in ensuring that all our heritage, whether it be from the remote or from the recent past is regarded as a living heritage.

In conclusion, may I therefore express an ambition for the bicentenary exhibition of The Art Fund in 2103. It is that the exhibition should be filled with objects that reflect a 21st century commitment to broadening and enlarging our collections, as well as saving items that are already here. I also hope that a much more significant proportion of those objects will have been made during the next hundred years, so that we can take pride in the present and recent past, as well as simply honouring the achievements of our distant forebears.