Letter from the Director: Taking stock

In his Art Quarterly column, our Director celebrates a stellar year at the Art Fund and reveals some exciting plans for 2014.

So much of life at the Art Fund is about planning for the future, but as it’s December may I be allowed to look back briefly over my shoulder at 2013?

The announcement of Sir Denis Mahon’s great bequest of Baroque paintings to museums across the UK, through the Art Fund, was a memorable way to start a year in which grants of some £4m (to date) were made by our trustees to help 67 museums buy 136 works of art worth a total of £43 million. These ranged from Pietro Lorenzetti’s Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter, c. 1320 (pictured) to the Silverdale Hoard of treasure for Lancashire County Council (see page 74) and GoMA Glasgow’s purchase of a group of 15 photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans.

But arguably the most spectacular in terms of the national heritage was the acquisition by Tate, acting on behalf of five UK museums, of John Constable’s iconic Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831), certainly one of the most important of all British pictures still to have been in private hands. Our £1m contribution to that acquisition – and to the national exhibition programme that will help bring it to a wide public – was made possible by the recent and significant increase in our grant-giving power that is a direct consequence of our fast-growing membership.

Sales of the National Art Pass have brought us now to a level of nearly 105,000 members, and we are delighted in return to be providing them with a flow of information about – and inducement to visit – museums and exhibitions across the country. Diverse but memorable shows in 2013 have included Home, Land and Sea at Manchester Art Gallery (curated by Henrietta Ward as part of the Art Fund/National Gallery curatorial trainee scheme), which brought some important 17th-century Netherlandish works from storage to public view, and the revelatory Francis Bacon/Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone at the Ashmolean, Oxford, co-curated by Art Fund trustee Richard Calvocoressi.

My two favourite moments of the year? First, in June, seeing the staff, curators and local authority supporters of the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow scoop the £100,000 Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year for their clever restoration of the artist’s former home and imaginative presentation of the important collections there. Second, in November, the unveiling of Caruso St John’s extensive internal remodelling of the southern end of Tate Britain’s building at Millbank, a brilliantly conceived and beautifully detailed architectural scheme that carefully complements the fine presentation of the permanent collection and will transform the visitor’s experience of the whole. The museum-going public has, I think, been well served by artists, curators and architects in 2013.

The calendar of gallery and exhibition openings set for 2014 is already an enticing prospect.

To King’s Cross

The Art Fund’s own 2014 will begin with a move to new premises at 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross. Designed by Lewis Cubitt in 1850, over the past year the building has been completely refurbished by John MacAslan and Partners, the award-winning architects of the spectacular new ticketing hall nearby at King’s Cross station. Alan Farlie of RFK Architects, who have worked closely with Tate, the British Museum and the National Gallery on many important exhibitions over the past decade, has worked on the interiors of our offices.

The small but now perfectly-formed building has some impressive architectural neighbours: Stanton Williams’s Central St Martins to one side, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s Google headquarters rising opposite, David Chipperfield’s One Pancras Square in sight and, of course, Colin St John Wilson’s British Library on the horizon. Throughout there is a palpable sense of urban planning carefully infused with real cultural ambition, for which developers Argent and masterplanners Allies and Morrison must take much credit.

We are pleased to confirm that our most immediate neighbours will be the House of Illustration, to whom we have leased the ground and lower floor of our building. They are an exciting new museum venture, founded and supported by Sir Quentin Blake, focusing on graphic illustration in all its forms and aiming to reach a wide audience through exhibitions, events and national programmes. We wish them great success. We will meanwhile occupy the top two floors – open, light-filled spaces that promise to provide an efficient and inspiring working environment for our 40 or so staff as we take on the challenges of next year and beyond.

New plans for Wedgwood

2014 will certainly see further developments in the still unfolding story of the Wedgwood Museum, whose nationally important collection has been under threat of sale ever since the museum was forced into insolvency through inheriting the pension debts of the original Wedgwood company, which collapsed in 2009.

Over the past two years the Art Fund has been working with the administrators Begbies Traynor, a legal team and a number of other parties to explore whether the liability for this unfortunate situation can be removed from the museum – and whether any other parties can be held financially responsible – but the threat of sale does of course remain. Discussions continue apace but the Art Fund is determined to ensure that, come what may, the collection is ultimately secured for the nation.

Encouragingly, the new owners of the factory and its business, WWRD (Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton), have announced a £25m investment programme in its Barlaston site near Stoke-on-Trent and have received planning permission to proceed. The proposals include sale of land for residential use, new investment in the manufacturing side of the factory and greatly improved visitor facilities, galleries and stores for the museum, allied with new catering and retail opportunities. A realistic business plan seems to offer, for the first time in a while, long-term security for this unique component of Britain’s industrial heritage. Meanwhile, we will redouble our efforts to ensure that all parts of the priceless collection can remain together and, through the museum, in the public domain.

Thanks for all your support in 2013. Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy new year.

This column appears in the Winter 2013 issue of Art Quarterly. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, please buy a National Art Pass.

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