Saatchi’s gift, but can the nation afford it?
Surprise announcement of donation poses questions that will be difficult for the government to deal with
By Martin Bailey. Museums, Issue 216, September 2010
Published online: 07 September 2010
LONDON. Charles Saatchi’s offer to donate 200 works of art worth a reported £25m to the British public came as a surprise, not least to the government. Culture minister Ed Vaizey told us that there had been no discussions with his department before Saatchi's announcement. Discussions were subsequently held with Arts Council England, but these have now broken down.
“It seems on the face of it generous and philanthropic, and a self-sustaining gallery belonging to the nation is a very attractive model,” Vaizey said. When asked whether it was curious that the gift had been announced before an actual recipient had been arranged, Vaizey paid tribute to Saatchi, saying: “Creative people do not always play by conventional rules.”
Saatchi’s offer, announced on 1 July, was that he is “gifting over 200 works, and the Saatchi Gallery, to create a Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) for London”. At the time it was said that his gallery “is currently in discussion with potential government departments who would own the works on behalf of the nation”.
But our inquiries suggest that there may be formidable problems in bringing the idea to fruition (see below). The key question is whether MoCA, which would have free admission, can be sustained solely by self-generated income.
The museum would continue to operate in the Saatchi Gallery’s existing premises, the former Duke of York’s barracks in Chelsea, where it opened in October 2008. Altogether Saatchi and the Cadogan Estate spent over £20m on converting the 70,000-square-foot building into a gallery.
The 200 works would be donated to the MoCA foundation, with the entire collection being presented in three exhibitions, starting in 2012. After that, the gallery would display a rotating selection, with the remainder available for short-term loan to other venues.
Although some works of art would be designated “permanent”, others could be sold in order to buy new acquisitions. Saatchi believes this would ensure that the museum remains “actively involved in the newest developments in contemporary art”. His gallery is unwilling to disclose the full list of works, although it has named eight key items, including Tracey Emin’s My Bed, 1998. The others are by the Chapman Brothers, Grayson Perry, Richard Wilson, Emily Prince, Jitish Kallat, Kader Attia and Zhang Dali.
The donation only represents part of the collection assembled by Saatchi, a former advertising executive, who has been collecting since the 1970s. Its size has not been disclosed, but the Saatchi statement says that he will “continue to own many hundreds of works privately, which will be passed to his family on his death”. Six years ago we reported that he owned around 2,500 works (The Art Newspaper, December 2004, p1), although he often sells.
The Saatchi Gallery is unwilling to discuss which public body might administer MoCA. So far the main discussions have been with the Arts Council England. Between 1999 and 2003 the council received three series of Saatchi gifts totalling 174 works, but this new proposal is quite different, since the council would become directly responsible for running a major gallery. (It does not directly run galleries, ending its management of the Hayward Gallery in 1986.) This would be a particularly difficult time for the council to take over MoCA since it is facing severe government funding cuts.
In August the Arts Council told us that “throughout July we worked with the Saatchi Gallery’s management to consider the logistics of taking the works into public ownership and are happy to provide the gallery with further advice or assistance”. It has just been confirmed that these talks have broken down.
Theoretically, other public bodies could be considered, although no detailed discussions seemed to have taken place when we went to press. One is the Government Art Collection, but it provides works for UK embassies and government offices, and does not run galleries. The Tate holds the main national collection of contemporary art, but there is no indication that it would want to run MoCA, which would be a smaller rival to Tate Modern.
The museum could theoretically become a new national museum under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. However the department would be extremely reluctant to take over financial responsibility. A final option might be the Greater London Authority, but it too would shy away from possibly having to subsidise the gallery.
If Saatchi fails to find a public recipient, MoCA could be set up as an independent charitable foundation, although this is not what is being proposed in the Saatchi statement. However, as a charity it would need to ensure that it would be self-funding.
Devil is in the detail
The building: It is owned by the Cadogan Estate and rented to the Saatchi Gallery. The gallery says that it has “a long lease and pays a commercial rent”, but is unwilling to go into detail. The questions are whether the rent can be afforded and how long the building in Chelsea will be available.
Phillips de Pury’s sublease: The Saatchi statement has one curious omission—it fails to mention that Phillips de Pury & Co, the dealer and auctioneer, leases display space on the gallery’s upper level. This arrangement has effectively sponsored free admission for visitors. The issue is whether this will go on and for how long.
Running costs: Saatchi’s statement says that the gallery will “continue to be free to the public, and run as it is today by securing sponsorship, and by using revenues”, from its restaurant, bookshop and hosting events. However, with 50 staff, the costs must be considerable. As a rough comparison, London’s Serpentine Gallery, with 51 staff, had a £5.8m budget last year, subsidised by a £900,000 Arts Council grant.
This story appeared in our September print edition, and was updated after we went to press.
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