Interview: David Verey, Art Fund chairman

As David Verey CBE prepares to stands down after a highly successful tenure as chairman, he talks to Ben Luke about his time at the Art Fund.

In his 10 years as chairman of the Art Fund, David Verey has overseen perhaps the most energetic decade in the organisation’s history. As he steps down in July, he will look back on a period that has seen huge changes in the Fund itself, as well as a remarkable series of campaigns and initiatives.

A name change and new approaches to fundraising have prompted a huge growth in membership. The Art Fund has helped museums acquire everything from Renaissance masterpieces to a major collection of contemporary art in Artist Rooms, now in its sixth year of touring the country.

With a career in banking, David Verey’s entry into the art world was in 1992, as a trustee at Tate (he eventually became chairman). In his time in arts administration he has seen unprecedented change in the creative industries. ‘There is this energy that over 20 years has unquestionably completely altered the cultural landscape in all sorts of ways, together with the Lottery, which was obviously hugely instrumental. But it is the energy of the human beings involved.’

He mentions Nicholas Serota, director of Tate; Neil MacGregor, director first at the National Gallery and now at the British Museum; and Sandy Nairne at the National Portrait Gallery: ‘The sector has attracted very energetic, intelligent, broad-thinking people, which it certainly didn’t have before.’

For Verey (who says he is ‘a reformer by nature’), the goal on joining what was then still called the National Art Collections Fund, or NACF, was to help bring some of that energy to the organisation. ‘It was in a muddled position of essentially being labelled in the heritage area, very conservative, and viewed as an organisation that was very much behind the scenes.’

He maintains three initiatives, developed under the former director David Barrie, reflected the new era: the change of name to the Art Fund and its new visual identity; the creation of Art Fund International, in which five museums shared over £4m to build collections of international contemporary art; and taking on the Museum Prize (now the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year), which ‘made a statement about the Art Fund,’ Verey suggests. ‘What do we do? We treasure museums, we support museums.’ He says that ‘the mood changed’ as a result of these initiatives.

And with it came a return to first principles. ‘Getting great art in front of the public is what it’s about. And at our heart, really, is the notion of public interest, not “saving things for the nation”,’ he states. ‘The wonderful woman who founded the thing, Cristiana Herringham, was completely clear that the whole purpose of buying the Velázquez [The Rokeby Venus, 1647–51] and then the Holbein [Christina of Denmark, 1538] was not because they were sitting in the UK, but because it was fabulous art that ought to be in public hands, not in private hands.’

Membership has risen by over 40 per cent to 110,000 since the launch of the National Art Pass in 2011. ‘People were no longer buying into a membership organisation – all of a sudden it gives you a pass to something (nigh-on 700 museums nationally) as opposed to enclosing you within something,’ he points out. ‘It was very clever and it was nothing to do with me, other than supporting the idea.’ The pass, developed under Stephen Deuchar, director since 2010, has thus prompted a different kind of awareness about the Fund’s work, as many enjoying its benefits find out more about the fundraising activities.

‘It is the absorption of the idea: what’s the purpose of this thing, what’s the underlying reason for it? People fall in love with the notion that it doesn’t own anything, that it gives money away to museums… It is just an idea, and that is powerful.’

Among the more difficult aspects of the Art Fund’s work is deciding where its money goes amid many worthy causes. As Verey admits, due to the economic climate, ‘the pressure over the last few years has been enormous’. The Art Fund has increasingly taken a leading role in the publicity and campaigning around potential major acquisitions for museums. ‘If you do more than two of these a year, then you’re pushing your luck: one big one is probably ideal,’ Verey says. And ‘you need all of the pieces’ to make the campaigns work, he adds. ‘You need a curator saying this is very important, you need the media saying it is important and you – crucially – need the membership to feel that it is important. So it has to be significant and it’s not just us saying so.’

He uses an analogy that betrays his banking background. ‘The Art Fund always was seen, and is still, as the lead underwriter: if you get that lead underwriter’s stamp for 10 per cent of the risk, it is the reputation of the trustees and the Fund that enables others to follow. It is an old-fashioned financial technique in that sense. But that means that you have to have a group of trustees and staff who really do know what they are talking about and are not just skating on the surface.’

He is clearly proud of the efforts the Art Fund made in helping with numerous major acquisitions and contemporary commissions in his time, like the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland’s acquisition of the two great Titian paintings. ‘It was very much a National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland thing,’ he says, ‘but I think they would say that it was very important for the Art Fund to get behind it (which we did with £3m of support), and we funded a programme around the presentation of the pictures to the British public, and that was very helpful.’

At the other extreme of art history, he regards the purchase of the art dealer Anthony d’Offay’s contemporary art collection, now called Artist Rooms, and the regional tour, as ‘such a game changer for the whole country’. He leaves just as the Art Fund has been engaged in another high-profile campaign, to help the National Portrait Gallery successfully acquire Anthony van Dyck’s Self-portrait (1640–1) – ‘fascinating… an extraordinary piece of English history,’ he says.

Verey sees one of the Art Fund’s key future challenges as helping the public gain access to the parts of national collections that are not on display. ‘We have a lot of reserve collections throughout the UK, and all museums need refreshing, because that is what brings the public in, when there is something new to look at,’ he says. ‘So how do we mobilise more of the reserve collections? I think there is a huge opportunity for the Art Fund to help museums do that.’

Verey’s own next step is the chairmanship of the Government Art Collection, but he will look back on his Art Fund years with great affection. ‘I really have loved it,’ he says. ‘We Brits use this word “fun”, and it doesn’t mean laughter – although there has been quite a bit of laughter. But it has been fun in the sense of creating some objectives, deciding where to go, getting there, and attracting some incredibly bright people.’

This article appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Art Quarterly. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, please buy a National Art Pass.

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