Art law Museums United Kingdom

Foundling Museum reaches settlement with children’s charity

Its trustees have been reinstated and the plan to purchase paintings from Coram is back on

The most important work in the collection is Hogarth’s portrait of Captain Thomas Coram, 1740

The Foundling Museum has won a battle to retain its independence from Coram, the children’s charity. Two years ago, the museum’s chairman, Andrew Fane, was sacked by the charity, and last year, its independent trustees, including the artist Jeremy Deller, were removed. This brought fundraising by the museum to an end and endangered the collection, which includes paintings by Hogarth and Gainsborough.

In a joint statement, the charity and the museum said: “Coram is no longer sole member [able to control the museum through the appointment of trustees], and two new, independent trustees have been appointed to work with the existing board, which includes the reinstated former trustees.” Monisha Shah and Paul Zuckerman join the restored board of Jim Close, Jeremy Deller, Charles Henderson, Spencer Hyman, Patricia Lankester and Sheena Vick. Close, a former deputy director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, has been made the new chairman.

The deal was welcomed by Caro Howell, the director of the museum, who says she is “pleased with the outcome and looking forward to a collaborative future”. Close is also happy that the problems have finally been resolved.

The founding of the Foundling

The Foundling is effectively Britain’s oldest public art gallery, displaying works originally owned by the orphanage established by Captain Thomas Coram in 1739. In 1926, the original building in Bloomsbury was demolished and the children were moved to new premises outside London. The Thomas Coram Foundation (now known as Coram) built new headquarters on the site, where its collection was housed. Its museum was formally made a separate charity in 1998 and it reopened after renovations in 2004. The Foundling Museum now has just less than 50,000 visitors a year.

Over the past two years, Coram has tried to regain more direct control over the museum, wanting to incorporate the museum’s accounts into its own. In October 2012, Andrew Fane (a former deputy chairman of English Heritage) was sacked as the director, along with a trustee, Gregor Michie. Tensions increased in May 2013, when all the independent trustees were removed.

The ousted board members felt that they were the victims of a power struggle, with Coram (headed by Carol Homden) wanting to use the museum to further its childcare causes, while the trustees wanted to assert their independence as an arts organisation.

Paintings in the balance

Internal disarray threatened the museum’s collection, since the charity owns more than 100 of its paintings, worth around £30m. Most important of these is Hogarth’s Portrait of Thomas Coram, 1740.

Under a 2002 arrangement, the charity agreed to lend the pictures to the museum and gave it 25 years to gradually buy the works. The first painting sold to the museum that year was Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley, 1749-50, for £4m. Since then, progress has been slow, with only a few lesser works purchased from Coram for £89,000. Last year, Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund, expressed concern that if the museum was unable to buy all the pictures before 2027, they might then be sold on the open market at huge prices.

The Attorney General eventually stepped in to examine the row between Coram and the museum’s independent trustees. His office wrote to the children’s charity, warning that the new arrangements did not “fit with the spirit and intent” of the 2002 purchase agreement. The Attorney General then passed the problem over to the Charity Commission to give detailed advice. Together they put pressure on Coram, leading to the settlement this month.

Fundraising can now resume to keep the pictures together on public view. “The plan for the museum to purchase the historic art collection from Coram over time remains our shared goal,” says a spokeswoman for the children’s charity. In May, the museum bought Samuel Wale’s Christ’s Hospital, around 1748, for £80,000. There are still 13 years to go before the deadline, but the biggest challenge will be to raise the funds for Hogarth’s portrait of Captain Coram.

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