Fifty rooms with a view to public benefit

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Sitting in Edinburgh last week for the announcement that the British gallerist Anthony d’Offay’s collection had been acquired for the nation, surrounded by works by Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, I had to pinch myself to believe that d’Offay’s visionary plan was at last becoming a reality. The acquisition of 50 whole “rooms” of art from his collection – some 700 pieces worth an estimated £125m, including important work by Beuys, Warhol, Gilbert & George, Robert Mapplethorpe and Damien Hirst – opens new vistas for the display of modern and contemporary art across the UK. The scale is extraordinary but so too is his vision of touring the “rooms” across the country – taking art to the people rather than expecting them to find their way to it.

But I had to pinch myself again when I heard Andy Burnham, the secretary of state for culture, publicly invite Alastair Darling, chancellor of the exchequer, in whose constituency we were gathered, to take note of d’Offay’s gift. For d’Offay has indeed been exceptionally generous in giving up around £100m of accumulated wealth in order to see his collection pass into the public realm (he received just £26.5m). But the government has also been exceptionally generous, by sorting out a potential tax liability of £14.6m (in addition to the direct funding provided by the department of culture and the Scottish government) in order that this gift can be made in d’Offay’s lifetime, and indeed risking that it will set a precedent.

That private giving can lead to public benefit may appear self-evident, but how to encourage more of it has become a cause célèbre. The government bemoans the fact that the great increase in wealth in the last 15 years has not led to any increase in charitable giving, while super-rich non-domiciles (some of whom have been significant donors to cultural organisations) complain bitterly about proposed changes to their tax regime.

The d’Offay gift was a long time in the making, and highlights a number of issues about the proper relationship between public and private sectors. First, in a world where rich private collectors often seem to doubt the merits of public museums and prefer to found their own, it is good to see a private collector recognise the skills and experience that reside in public institutions such as Tate and National Galleries of Scotland, who will share the donated work.

Second, it demonstrates the importance of developing long-term relationships with collectors and dealers if their collections are to be brought into the public realm. In this case such links started years ago with the friendship between d’Offay and Richard Calvocoressi, who until recently was the director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Early benefits came with the loan of whole “rooms” of the collection for special exhibitions on Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol and Howard Hodgkin, as well as a number of gifts of individual works of art.

Longer-term loans have also powerfully influenced the way in which our national collections have grown. Just down the road in Edinburgh, the Duke of Sutherland has 29 Old Masters on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, including a complete set of Poussin’s “Seven Sacraments”. In London, the National Gallery has around 40 works on its walls on long-term loan, mostly from aristocratic collections, with several from the non-domiciled new rich currently in the Treasury’s sights.

The trouble with loans is that sooner or later owners may discover a need to sell. The museum, naturally enough, sees the potential loss of the works as a threat, and scrambles to raise the money to keep them. Recognising this risk, the tax system encourages private sales to museums rather than on the open market. Generous capital gains tax remissions are available, including a “sweetener” (the French word douceur is curiously still used) paid back to the vendor. So, had the National Gallery continued with its attempt last year to buy the five remaining works from Poussin’s first set of the “Seven Sacraments” on loan from the Duke of Rutland, the government would have written off upwards of £30m of tax due.

No one would want to get rid of these important capital tax concessions. They are vital to heritage bodies like the National Trust as well as to museums, and have made possible many of the most significant historic acquisitions down the years. There are also very substantial tax concessions available to your estate if you die, under the government’s Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme, which allows works of art to be presented to museums instead of inheritance tax. But of course capital tax remission on sales only works if you sell, and AIL only works when you’re dead. If you want to make a gift of a to a museum while you’re still alive, the tax system has nothing to offer.

That is why the government’s recognition of Anthony d’Offay’s generosity is so welcome. Not everyone, of course, has a collection on a scale that justifies exceptional action by two governments. And tax, of course, isn’t everything. D’Offay’s love of art goes back to his student days in Edinburgh, when he used to visit the National Gallery of Scotland. He has described it as “the defining experience of my life”, and his focus now is on giving something back. The collection that those early experiences inspired will touch the lives of millions.

So art really does have power. And just as “artist rooms” will democratise the way modern and contemporary art is seen across the UK, it has thrown down a challenge to policymakers for the future: to democratise incentives for lifetime giving so that every art collector can be a donor, not just the very rich.

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