Exclusive interview with art dealer Anthony d'Offay and new Art Fund Trustee Richard Calvocoressi

  • 9 June 2008

Art dealer Anthony d'Offay offered his superlative art collection to the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate for a fraction of its current value. In this exclusive interview with new Art Fund Trustee Richard Calvocoressi, he reveals the motivation behind his philanthropic gesture. The interview is taken from the latest issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine sent free of charge to all members of The Art Fund.

Richard Calvocoressi: Anthony, when did your passion for art begin?

Anthony d’Offay: When I was a child my mother used to park me in the museum in Leicester while she went shopping. So at an early age I got used to being in museums and came to love Egyptian antiquities and 18th-century portraits – whatever was there.

RC: Were you aware of Leicester’s famous collection of German Expressionists?

AD: Absolutely. Twentieth-century German painting made an impression on me as a child, because it didn’t come from photography or the world as you had observed it, but from the world of the imagination. It was a new way of making art. I felt that if in the same building you could have Egyptian mummies and Francis Bacon – wow! What did that mean?

RC: You graduated from Edinburgh University in 1962.

AD: Yes. In my first lecture Professor David Talbot-Rice said, ‘Your textbook is the National Gallery.’ It was a transformative experience – I came to love those works of art, and they became part of one’s life and way of seeing the world.

RC: You initially showed early British modernism in your gallery at Dering Street. When did you become interested in the work of living artists?

AD: I was friends with a lot of them: Gilbert & George, Richard Long, Francis Bacon. Lucian Freud joined the gallery in ’72, and that felt like a breakthrough. His first show impressed David Sylvester so much it led to the retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1974. I remember writing to Lucian and saying a price of £1,500 was something that we could, perhaps, improve on. It felt like a new adventure.

RC: In 1980 you opened a new, larger space devoted to showing contemporary inter-national artists.

AD: The idea was to have a New York-style space, which worked in terms of what it was able to sell. There was no backup – we weren’t selling Matisse drawings in the back room or anything. The whole thing was a big risk. It was only when we sold Joseph Beuys’s first big sculpture to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra five months after we opened that we thought we might survive and make a success of it.

RC: Beuys was the first artist to show in the new gallery, and his is the biggest group of works in ARTIST ROOMS.

AD: Beuys loved showing in London, while

New York was always very make-or-break.

He’d just had this wonderful show at the Guggenheim and he felt that showing here, where it would be seen by people from all over the world, was more worthwhile for him than showing in Germany. He liked British eccentricity as well.

RC: It’s wonderful you’ve managed to keep so much of his work together; it includes some marvellous early drawings.

AD: We were at pains to represent his work accurately from 1945 onwards. We worked on that for years. In Germany, we bought the so-called ‘Ströher Beuys Block’ – a large accumulation of his work – with a massive bank loan and kept it for seven years, so that it could go back to the museum in Darmstadt where it had been on loan: that was Beuys’s idea. It’s in concentrated collections that you can see an artist’s development. The Rothko room in Tate Modern – that’s a powerful experience. A room that says ‘Pop Art’, where there are two Warhols, a Rauschenberg and a Lichtenstein – that’s just like a chapter in a book. ARTIST ROOMS moves away from the idea that a museum illustrates some notional book.

RC: You’ve known a lot of world-famous artists, including Beuys and Andy Warhol. What are your memories of Warhol?

AD: We had this idea for him to do a self-portrait, so he took some photographs and we looked at them together. And he said, ‘Maybe I’ll try some camouflage on them.’ I thought, ‘That’s the most horrible idea I’ve ever heard!’ But I said, ‘Why not just try one and see what it’s like?’ I went back three weeks later, and he’d done a whole roomful. They were magnificent. I realised then I should always just trust the artist.

RC: Your shows in the eighties made an impact on many young people, including myself as a young curator at the Tate. In 1983 I tried to get the Tate to buy the whole exhibition of Beuys’s Vitrines – 13 in all, I think. In the end, the trustees only bought two. But through you, Beuys offered to give the Tate a third Vitrine. You always ensured your artists were represented in public collections by their best works.

AD: But what else can you do as an art dealer? You try and help the artists to help museums. What is there in the Tate or the National Galleries of Scotland is there forever, and that’s the situation the artist wants and the public needs.

RC: Why didn’t you found your own private museum?

AD: In the UK, there’s a difficult situation outside metropolitan centres – by which

I really mean London and Edinburgh. I think it’s incredibly important for the creativity of young people everywhere to have access to contemporary art. It’s about education and creativity. We produce many bright people, and where do they come from? They come from the experience of looking at art, and asking themselves questions when they’re at school and at university. When I was in Leicester, we went to London twice before I was eighteen. London was a vast, frightening place where you could get lost. If your parents didn’t go to the V&A or you weren’t already interested in culture, then you didn’t go. So now with ARTIST ROOMS you can have Damien Hirst’s Away From the Flock, eight self-portraits by Mapplethorpe, and Ron Mueck’s Spooning Couple in adjoining rooms and people will ask questions: ‘What is this? Why? What good is it? What particular feelings do I have looking at these works?’

RC: So ARTIST ROOMS will go on tour throughout Britain to make such works available to young people?

AD: There’s been a terrific response from across the country. One of the most exciting possibilities is that the artists’ work will go to places where there are no collections at all and reach not just people who are already interested in contemporary art but young people generally. If you’re a student from, say, Aberdeen and you haven’t seen contemporary art before, you couldn’t walk through those rooms without asking questions. And the moment you’re asking questions, art is beginning to do its work. That’s what is really needed.

RC: Is that how ARTIST ROOMS took shape?

AD: When we closed the d’Offay Gallery in 2001 we asked ourselves what we could do that was really useful – what sort of contribution can we make? So we began to lend works to Edinburgh and plan projects together. That is what has nurtured the idea.

RC: Cynics might say that the ARTIST ROOMS collection is dealer’s stock. How much has been acquired since you closed the gallery?

AD: I never made the calculation, but certainly 50 per cent. We always held back great works for museums so we had a core from which to build. What we had, we then added to. For example, we had a number of early Warhol drawings, but we added to them to make the group of 50 in the Donation. And the room of late Warhol diptychs – everything in there was acquired later with the specific purpose of making that unique room.

RC: Were you consciously collecting with the strengths and weaknesses of the national collections in mind?

AD: Certainly. There’s no point in buying things that are already there.

RC: What about photography? Neither Arbus nor Mapplethorpe is represented in the Tate or the National Galleries in Edinburgh.

AD: I was friends with Mapplethorpe and liked him very much. I’d been impressed with Arbus’s show at the Hayward in 1972. I felt young people who hadn’t seen contemporary art might find photography a direct way into it. Take a Mapplethorpe self-portrait. Why did he put a whip up his backside? Why has he got a knife? Diane Arbus – why do these people look tortured, on drugs, or alienated? Who are these dropouts, these young people? They’re people dealing with fear and vulnerability, aren’t they? Those works each address the kind of questions young people ask themselves, questions about their own identity, their sexuality, where they’re going.

RC: Will you continue to play a role in how the works are displayed and how the collection expands?

AD: We’ll have to wait and see. Certainly, I’m delighted to be involved and realise there’s so much about the works we haven’t yet passed on. And so I hope we can be useful – I have no ambitions to be tiresome!

RC: There’s a big difference between relin-quishing a collection now rather than after your death.

AD: One of the reasons we closed the gallery is that I wanted to do something useful while I was still relatively active. What we really want is a new young curator who makes the collection his or her own, and comes up with new things to add to it.

RC: So the endowment is to be used for acquiring work by emerging artists?

AD: Exactly. The collection doesn’t have my name on it, so it won’t be frozen in aspic: it’ll continue to evolve. There’s been a good response to it being called ARTIST ROOMS, rather than ‘The d’Offay Gift’. It’s the lifeblood of museums to make new acquisitions.

RC: Given the limited tax incentives available to individuals wishing to give to museums and galleries in their lifetimes, are there lessons the government could learn to help make giving easier in the future?

AD: I think it has to take on board the reasons people come to this country – culture is a major part of that. The national collections of 20th-century and contemporary art have gaps, and we need new donors to fill those gaps. The country desperately needs incentives to make that happen. Why do those of us in the art world go to America all the time? We go for the wealth of the collections. Almost wherever you go in America there are great museums, just as there are in Germany. When we started working with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, I was very conscious that there should be an alternative to London. Just as when you’re in New York, you’re conscious of Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s such a strong idea, isn’t it? Edinburgh and Glasgow have great collections, and that’s something impressive to build on.

RC: And, of course, much of those collections came from private sources.

AD: Indeed. It wasn’t lost on me as a student in Edinburgh to see Alexander Maitland’s name again and again in the National Gallery. The quality of his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures was extraordinary. That was somebody who chose things with great care and perception, and he was working hand- in-hand with the museum from the beginning. That’s how the great public collections have been formed.

ARTIST ROOMS is one of the most stunning acquisitions ever made. Fifty rooms encompassing a total of 725 works by 25 artists, it will transform the national holdings of modern and contemporary art. Anthony d’Offay’s outstanding art collection was jointly acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. In an extraordinary act of generosity, d’Offay offered the entire collection – worth an estimated £125 million – to the galleries for the price he originally paid for it – £26.5 million. Art Fund Trustees were so enthusiastic about the project they gave an exceptional grant of £1 million from our reserves. The collection goes a considerable way towards filling gaps which The Art Fund has long lamented. But its real power lies in its potential to transform the way the British public experiences that art. People will not need to travel to the national galleries in London and Edinburgh to see high-quality modern and contemporary works. Instead, a rolling national tour will bring them to the public. Twelve regional museums are already in the plans for 2009, including three of our five partners in Art Fund International. Free to all who visit, the rooms will present artists’ work in depth and in context, thus providing real scope for understanding, rather than presenting isolated ‘shock’ pieces on their own. Could this herald the point at which the country begins to look forward as well as back, beyond its shores as well as within them, and embraces modern and contemporary art not as an aberration but as part of a vibrant and evolving culture? Our purpose is to secure works of art for presentation to the public. This acquisition embodies that ambition, as well as fitting with our own scheme to transform the way regional centres build their future collections.