TAITMAIL Not so much a dogwhistle as a flogwhistle for our museums

The Royal Academy is famously our one world class art venue that is independent. It gets no subsidy and relies entirely on sponsorship, box office and what it can earn, and runs an art school for which it charges no fee (because that’s what society did 250 years ago). So if museums and galleries are in trouble, you can say that again for the RA.

Do I hear the thin, mournful wail of a dogwhistle?
 
The RA was once described by a former chief executive as a £100m a year business, to emphasise to the artists who run it that art isn’t everything, even in art. As it is, this venerable 252-year-old institution has been shattered by the lockdown and must save £8m from its annual budget or lose 150 members of staff. Or…
 
The RA doesn’t hold much of a collection but what it has is valuable and it’s hardly surprising that under the straitened circumstances the less romantic RAs are casting their eyes towards the most valuable object it does own, the Taddei Tondo.
 
This is an unfinished sculpture, left to the Royal Academy Schools in the 1820s as a teaching aid, which is now on display in the RA’s new Burlington Gardens building. It is also the only Michelangelo in this country and could be worth around £100m. I know the RA’s new president is dead against selling, but the notion comes up from time to time in lean periods, and she may have to combat a stronger argument than ever if it comes up again at the RA’s council now, in the leanest time of them all.
 
If the RA is contemplating selling, museums and galleries up and down the country of all dimensions must be going through the same tortuous agonising – what have we got that’s valuable, what’s valuable enough to sell, what’s too valuable to sell, was it donated and would the donor care or doesn’t that matter? Most only reopened in August, some not even then, and according to the official Heritage Sector Briefing to the government they have reported an initial loss of between 75% to 80% of their income. The RA is at least 50% down.
 
Without going over old ground, these days the difference between the independent and the subsidised is blurred, and capitalising on a museum’s assets has long been a cause of serious conflict among museums and their funders. The official word for flogging off objects from collections is “de-accessioning”, and its unofficial umpire has been the Museums Association ever since it took it upon itself to draw up a Code of Ethics in 1977. 
 
Number Two in its code under the heading “Stewardship of collections” says primly that museums should “treat museum collections as cultural, scientific or historic assets, not financial assets”, and it goes into details saying that museums should “refuse to mortgage collections or offer them as security for a loan. Ensure the financial viability of the museum is not dependent on any monetary valuation placed on items in its collections. Resist placing a commercial value on the collections unless there is a compelling reason to do so, and for collections management purposes only”. The last bit is a reference to getting rid of unnecessary duplicates. In other words, though shalt not flog off.
 
The Arts Council took on responsibility for state funded non-national museums in 2012, and clearly times have changed. It’s OK to off-load now, but usually only to other accredited museums and not normally for cash. Even so, says ACE’s official advice (leaning heavily on the MA’s code), “On occasion a museum may wish to sell an item for financial reasons”, warning “This is a high risk area”. It goes on to refer the reader to a 30-page “toolkit” on why and why not to do it, and if you do how to ethically go about it. And what is saleable.
 
They can be items (ACE prefers “item” to the more museumy “object”) that fall outside the core collection, duplicates, underused items, items for which the museum cannot care properly, items beyond the museum’s capability to repair, unprovenanced items, items that pose a threat to health and safety. Then the toolkit gets onto dodgy ground: you could sell something in order to buy a better example, or items “selected for their potential to generate income”.
 
“There is a high level of risk involved in this course of action and it should only take place after extensive consultation with the MA and other sector bodies. Museums considering this course of action should follow the detailed guidance on financially motivated disposal in Appendix 4”. If anything was ever devised to put you off deaccessioning Appendix 4 is it, and if you feel obliged to go there you really are in trouble – there are 16 sub-clauses on consultation alone. 
 
ACE’s sanction to those who don’t go through the proper procedure is to withdraw official accreditation, which may seem a rather blunt claw but can have serious implications if a museum is looking for loans of objects, support from trusts and foundations, sponsorship, not to mention co-operation with other institutions or help from ACE.  The RA is accredited.
 
In the US the custodian of the code of ethics is the Association of Art Museum Directors, and woe betide a museum that steps out of line. Two years ago the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., sold more than 20 works of art ranging from a Benjamin West to an Alexander Calder to pay for a renovation and was, according to the Washington Post’s art critic Sebastian Smee, “censured, sanctioned and publicly shamed”. Now as a result of Covid, says Smee, the AAMD has relaxed its guidelines and museums may now “use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art … to support the direct care” of their collection. “There’s no doubt” writes Smee. “This represents a major departure, and a recognition that many art museums are in financial free fall”.
 
Could it happen here? It already has. Remember Northampton Museum, which belongs to the borough council, and its 4,000 Egyptian Sekhemka statue? It was sold by the borough amid a press and media storm for £16m in 2014 partly to pay for a £6.7m refurb for the museum, which duly lost its accreditation; the work was delayed by four years and the museum, finally scheduled to reopen in June, still hasn’t. 
 
Since 1949 Hertfordshire County Council had been compiling a School Loan Collection of modern paintings, by the likes of John Minton, Carel Weight and Keith Vaughan. This year it decided to send 450 to auction because they “had little relevance to the county” to realise almost £500,000. It was condemned by a group of MPs concerned with arts education as “a major cultural loss” and its chair wrote to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, that “this decision will have far-reaching consequences for many years to come”. 
 
The RA is not expected to sanction the Tondo’s sale, but the genie is out of the bottle. The government’s and ACE’s rescue packages have helped some museums over the hump of the immediate effects of the lockdown (still waiting to hear what’s happening to the £1.57bn, open to the subsidised and non-subsidised)), but they are staring at a blank future with drastically reduced income, little resources available from charities, much smaller staffs and fewer exhibitions to attract visitors. 
 
Many might think they have no choice but to test the rigours of Appendix 4 in the hope of surviving what looks to them like an oncoming post-nuclear winter.

 

 

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