‘Why collect?’ makes the case for more funds for new acquisitions 14/3/2018

The Art Fund and Wolfson Foundation have published a report ‘Why Collect? – a report on museum collecting’ by historian Sir David Cannadine.  He found that although most museums have acquired new objects in the past five years, this is often ‘passive’ collecting through bequest, rather than a planned approach to developing collections. However, the number of museums with a written strategy is increasing. In 2010 at least half of museums did not have a budget for collecting, and 60% of acquisitions were through acceptance of donations and bequests. Except for nationals, collecting is a marginal activity for most museums, though case studies show it can be transformative.

The report references the growing unaffordability of works of high art as individual paintings sell at auction for dizzying prices, notably £333m recently paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. Even so, the eleven case studies at the end of the report show how tiny fractions of this sum can allow museums to invest in new acquisitions that resonate with their audiences, and how larger investments result in huge public interest. Studies include:

  • Manchester Museum’s acquisition of a refugee’s life jacket.
  • Ferens Art Gallery’s purchase of Pietro Lorenzetti’s ‘Christ between Saints Paul and Peter’ (c1320) for £1,612,940 in February 2013 with help from the Wolfson and the Art Fund. The acquisition was the centrepiece to the gallery reopening in 2017, and led to high footfall and a swathe of news coverage.
  • Glasgow Museums used £100k from the Art Fund in 2011 to acquire a new collection of South Asian art, including three brightly painted truck backs painted by Jarnail Singh obtained for £935, attracting significant community interest.
  • The acquisition of the Staffordshire Hoard, valued at £3.285m brought in packed audiences. £900k was raised from public, the largest ever donation from the general population towards a museum purchase.
  • The report also looks at two cases of disposals, and how these can be a healthy part of a museum’s collections strategy, as at IWM, or widely condemned, as with the disposal of Sekhemka by Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.

Cannadine’s report is unusual in taking a very long view of museums and collecting – beginning in 1832 when Sir Robert Peel supported a new museum building for the National Gallery on the grounds that it would promote social cohesion.  Cannadine argues that “while many museums and galleries seem stable parts of the perpetual and immutable ordering of things, with their robust buildings and their permanent collections adorning their walls, the reality is that they are for the most part relatively recently established, and throughout their existence they have almost always been in a state of flux”.

While the report frequently confronts unsettling questions – in a digital age, will museums go the same way as shopping malls? – Cannadine argues that people will continue to wish to see museum objects in the flesh, and that increased investment in curators and collecting is needed for continued relevance. He concludes that “policy initiatives, and constantly tinkering with so-called ‘delivery bodies’ are no substitutes for the increased government support for our museums and galleries that is belatedly required and urgently needed, and that other countries undoubtedly provide.The Art Fund, The Art Newspaper, Parliament.uk, M + H