Charles Saatchi isn’t the UK’s most important art buyer. You are.”
So proclaims a leaflet from the Art Fund, encouraging members of the public to join and contribute to helping Britain’s museums acquire art. The flyer stands propped in a box in the South Kensington offices which house the UK charity, a building that is redolent of Britain’s art scene, where both John Everett Millais and Francis Bacon had studios.
“Millais House is part of the unfolding history of artists in London,” says Stephen Deuchar, sitting comfortably cradling a mug of coffee in a sunny upstairs room.
Nine months ago he took over as director of the fund, arriving from his previous high-profile position as director of Tate Britain. It was a surprise move and one which sees him going from soliciting money for acquisitions to doling it out: “poacher turned gamekeeper, or the reverse”, he says laughing, at the same time confessing that he is thoroughly enjoying the new challenge.
“Even after nine months I still find it quite remarkable that we have here a private charity funded by private individuals and public-spirited organisations effectively supporting the national acquisitions initiative,” he says. “I was amazed to discover that 80 per cent of museum art acquisitions in this country, above the level of £100,000, are made with Art Fund support.”
Last year the fund spent almost £4m on grants, which ranged from £800 (for a lithograph for the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden) to £1.15m towards the purchase of Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon”, bought for £50m from the Duke of Sutherland and now split between London’s National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.
In the past the fund had been criticised for being too parochial – something which Deuchar gently denies, pointing out that “international art has always been a priority” and citing the 1906 acquisition of Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus” for the National Gallery.
But he admits that there was concern that regional museums could miss out on developments in contemporary art. A result is the Art Fund International, which gives £5m to five UK institutions to collect global contemporary art over five years “to encourage a new kind of adventurousness”, he says. “The contemporary art world is international; it made sense for us to recognise that.” And an initiative, conceived in parallel with this, is to build a collection of photography by Middle Eastern artists for the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert.
“Both institutions wanted to expand their holdings in this area,” explains Deuchar, “This was one of their priority collecting areas. We guaranteed £100,000 support, they went away and decided what they wanted to acquire. As a result, they have now got a very important, well selected and economically purchased group right at the forefront, by artists and photographers very little known outside the Middle East.” He cites as an example Hassan Hajjaj’s image of a woman veiled with a Vuitton-printed scarf, its frame made from old tyres, that cost just £1,000.
I ask if there are there other collecting areas, China for example, they might support. “The main thing is to conceive our next initiative in close collaboration with museums; we mustn’t pronounce what the nation needs, it’s about working in partnership with museums, to help to go into new areas,” he says.
I ask him about the Saatchi collection: the British collector made a surprise announcement this summer that he would give over 200 works, and the Saatchi Gallery, to create a Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA). But many aspects of the donation – notably who would cover the running costs – were not defined, and talks with the Arts Council have broken down. I am curious to find out if the Art Fund is involved, but he sidesteps the question: “We talk to the Saatchi gallery fairly regularly, but we haven’t got anything to say at the moment,” he says, adding that “Nevertheless, it’s one of the Art Fund’s most important functions, to bring works of art from the private domain into public ownership.”
But even without Saatchi, there is a whole series of demands that are likely to be made on the fund in the future. For a start, there’s the second Titian [“Diana and Callisto” from the same source and also at £50m] to be funded in three years’ time; then there will certainly be pressure to save Poussin’s “Ordination”, put up for sale this December by the Duke of Rutland with an estimate of £20m. Just last month the Art Fund and the National Trust launched a fundraising campaign for £2.7m, to keep Breughel the Younger’s “The Procession to Calvary” in Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. And while the Fund has some £32m in the kitty: “You don’t get much income from that today,” he says, “and it’s important to maintain it at that level.”
With the government’s spending review expected to slash funding for the arts, I ask Deuchar if he expects hard times. “We have to accept that the collecting climate will get more difficult,” he answers; “Either we will get increased applications, or museums may just reduce buying, which I would regret deeply.”
So what are his priorities? “I would encourage the Treasury to take steps to give more incentives for individual philanthropy – it’s not good enough just to say museums need more private support. They could for example extend the acceptance-in-lieu system to lifetime giving. And I want to increase our membership from the present 80,000; I want everyone who goes into a museum to come out knowing that the Art Fund has contributed to that experience.”