Tate director, Nicholas Serota: Recent art is patrimony too

Serota discusses export laws and what is truly significant to public collections


All of us who 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 the National Gallery’s campaign to save Raphael’s beautiful Madonna of the Pinks, or the Tate’s own campaign to save the portrait of Omai by Joshua Reynolds, but as we celebrate 100 years of the Art Fund, I have to ask myself whether we 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 in contemporary society?

I want to concentrate on 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 50 years. No one in 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 the painterly beauty of some of the works in the collection, notably a group of landscapes by Fred Walker and his associates dating from the 1870s. I was struck by the cumulative impact of the collection that was the product of intense passion and imagination, but also scholarship, research and steady determination in the field of acquisition.

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 50 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 both 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 the 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 an awareness of earlier cultures and different societies. We can recognise the material achievement in our own age but few could 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 the present day image of personal suffering conveyed in countless photographic images of war, holocaust or famine in the late 20th 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 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 by 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 Waverley Committee in 1952 have been remarkably robust for more than 50 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 of significant record of social, political, economic or cultural history. It is founded on a belief that objects will have their 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 a 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, I think, would want British art achievements to be confined in this way. The presence of Turner’s “The whale ship” 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 sum of 19th- century European painting than would inclusion of this single canvas in the hang of the Turner Bequest at 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 UK.

Even when a work has been hidden, often unknown or unrecognised for generations in a private house, there is nevertheless some 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 by simple appeals to national or social chauvinism.

Even the apparently simple choice between a public collection in the UK and a private collection abroad is not quite so straightforward as it might appear. We have to remember how the anguish that accompanied Paul Mellon’s regular forays into the market for British art in the 1960s was followed in the late 70s 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 criterion, probably subsequent to a ruling on the other three present 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 sale to a public collection abroad. That is to say, not in every case.

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 an acquisition was accompanied by an irrevocable commitment to bequeath the work to a public collection, with all the tax advantages that would accompany such a bequest.

Furthermore, it is not always evident that acquisition by a public collection in the UK is necessarily a better solution than public exhibition abroad. Does a public collection in the UK really need a slightly faded Turner watercolour at considerable cost to the public purse simply because there are none or few in the region, where loans could be available from the British Museum, the V&A, or the Whitworth, Manchester?

As museum professionals, we have to develop new forms of ownership where appropriate, including partnership with foreign institutions, as Tate has tried to do with the Whitney and the Pompidou on the Bill Viola video currently on view at Tate Modern, and is about to do with another video installation by Bruce Nauman.

So far, of course, I’ve been talking of national patrimony as currently defined by government and by 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 50 year-old rule rolls steadily forward to include, now, objects made in the 1950s. It may also be extended by changes in taste that 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 almost entirely reactive. It is also unpredictable in timing, given the fact 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, as I have said, 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 that 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 UK are now rarely considered. In this respect, I am bound to point out the acute gaps in the field of Modern and contemporary art where we have failed to nurture the creation of major collections of 20th-century art since Samuel Courtauld in the 1920s.

The original purpose of the Lottery, and of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in particular, was to make good deficiencies, to remedy neglect and to enhance rather than simply replace 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 90% of the Lottery monies for acquisitions—themselves under fire at regular intervals in the last eight years—has been used to secure works already in this country rather than bringing 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 Zuitelande” from the US, or the £8 million to the National Gallery to acquire Seurat’s “The Channel of Gravelines”, here on a five-year loan from the Berggruen Collection, are shining exceptions to the rule. Beyond these two, 14 major grants, totalling more than £62 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 the assistance of the Art Fund. Fewer than 10 of these came from abroad. We simply do not make it possible, and we 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 acquiring further paintings made in France during the period?

Politicians and officials may be criticised, but they generally find a way of 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 the near-present.

We are still a rich country and I hope that a way can be found to keep the Raphael at the National Gallery, but the sum involved, amounting to at least £20 million, possibly £25 million, from various public sources is huge.

There are no prizes for predicting the likely press reaction to a plea that sought to commit an equivalent sum of £20 or 25 million from public funds to create an endowment fund to be used to build serious collections of 20th- and 21st-century art in, say, six regional museums across the country. If we want people to appreciate the culture of our own times, rather than continue to believe that great art ended sometime in the mid-19th 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 say within one hour’s drive time of those cities—to have regular encounters with Modern and contemporary art. That should not be such an absurd ambition. Look at a much smaller country for instance, The Netherlands.

There, in Amsterdam, Otterlo, Rotterdam, The Hague and Eindhoven, we find collections of 20th-century art better than any in the UK other than those at the Tate or in Edinburgh. And in addition, there are serious collections of contemporary art in Tilburgh, Groningen and Maastricht, which you could not say of British regional cities.

The present and the recent past has of course been the territory and ambition of the Contemporary Arts 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 to saving it. Many of the acquisitions that it has assisted over these past 10 years have been markedly more risky than those that it supported in its early years. I naturally welcome and salute this development because it is yet another demonstration that the Fund believes in ensuring that all our heritage—whether from the remote or from the recent past—is regarded as a living heritage.

In conclusion, may I perhaps express an ambition for the bicentenary exhibition of the Art Fund in 2103? It is that the exhibition 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 on view will have been made during the next 100 years so that we can take pride in the present, and in the recent past, as well as simply honouring the achievements of our distant forebears. .