Our culture, our history and our future

  • 31 August 2016
  • By Chris Smith
  • Lord Smith of Finsbury, Art Fund chairman

Art Fund remains steadfast in its commitment to Europe and the wider world and will do all it can to support UK museums and their curators as they seek to develop their collections across the world, writes chairman Chris Smith.

El Greco, Christ on the Cross, 1600-10 © Auckland Castle

El Greco, Christ on the Cross, 1600-10

More than 40 years ago, as I was leaving school and about to go to university, I was completely enthralled by Kenneth Clark’s television series Civilisation. He unfolded for me the entire history of western art. He inspired me to roam across Europe in succeeding years to discover for myself the story he had told. I still find myself, as I did last year, wandering through the Romanesque cloisters of the Abbey of St Pierre in Moissac, southwest France, going back to that combination of erudition and enthusiasm that made Civilisation so compelling.

So when I say that I believe with passion that our cultural understanding and enjoyment here in the UK is fundamentally intertwined with the great threads of European thought and art over the centuries, it’s a view that I have held virtually all my life. I believe it with even more passion now, in the aftermath of the divisive referendum vote to leave the European Union.

Clark’s artistic vision was probably too Eurocentric, of course; nowadays we are open to much broader cultural influences from across the globe, and rightly so. But the European tradition remains fundamental to our cultural history, ideas and vision. And it’s not only a matter of history. Now more than ever we are part of a vibrant European culture, often playing a leading and exciting part in international collaboration. We must strive very hard to maintain that spirit in the aftermath of the referendum.

Just a few months ago the V&A won Art Fund Museum of the Year 2016, in part because of the way in which it has transformed and spectacularly enhanced its displays over recent years. Go to its Europe 1600-1815 galleries, and I defy you to come out unmoved by the sheer beauty of what they contain, but also by the synergies across national boundaries that are revealed.

Art Fund, I’m proud to say, has played its part – helping museums and galleries across the country to acquire European works of art – over the years. In just the past year, we’ve helped the acquisition of El Greco’s Christ on the Cross (1600-10), Cornelis de Heem’s A Still Life of Flowers and Fruit Arranged on a Stone Plinth in a Garden (1685), and Lorenzo Bartolini’s The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz (c1820-21). This last work, of course, is of a Scottish subject by an Italian artist, gloriously transcending any sense of national barriers.

Aftermath of the referendum

The referendum result was close and revealed some deep divisions of geography, age and wealth. Cultural voices were largely strongly supportive of Remain, and Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian put the dilemma rather well: ‘Cultural figures, on the whole, wanted to remain – and thus they find themselves on one side of this great divide in British
life. What we will need, in the months and years to come, is our artists and intellectuals to venture across that rift and interpret our fractured country for us.’ It is, after all, the arts, culture and, above all, the stewardship of these by our museums and galleries that provide us with an understanding of what we are as a people. A sense of where we have come from, what we have achieved over the generations, how we have interacted, what things of beauty we have created, what discoveries we have made, and what our identity is.

As we struggle in the aftermath of the referendum to understand what is happening to our identity as a nation or combination of nations, museums and galleries – and the art that they contain, with all its European contexts and influences – have a crucial role to play in helping us to understand ourselves better.

Kenneth Clark, in 13-part series Civilisation

Kenneth Clark, in 13-part series Civilisation

In all the uncertainty in which we now find ourselves there are of course many practical issues that will need to be resolved. What, for example, will happen to European funding streams for the arts? The Creative Europe programme is worth some €1.46 billion over six years, and includes funding for the European Capitals of Culture, which made such a transformative impact on both Glasgow and Liverpool. Will the British Government guarantee that any funding lost from European sources will be replaced by the UK? And what will happen to arrangements for loans for exhibitions from other
European countries, in terms of practical things such as insurance, packing, loan agreements and transport rules? And what will the consequences be for the purchase of works of art from abroad, as the pound falls against the dollar and everything becomes more expensive? And what about the citizenship status of many of our expert museum curators and directors who happen to come from EU countries? We would be lost without their expertise.

Perhaps most seriously of all, our museums thrive on collaborative international networks and partnerships. Our museums lead, reflect and look to the world beyond our shores. And not only is this true in relation to Europe, but for a more global reach too – though often with its starting point in European transnational activity. Those collaborations are now going to be much more difficult to create and to sustain; and it is worth observing that this is a serious consequence not only for museums but for the whole higher-education research sector as well.

Art Fund will remain steadfast in its commitment to national, European and international collaboration. We will do everything we can to continue to support acquisitions. We will support curators as they seek to develop their collections
from exciting places and ideas across the world. Under our New Collecting Awards, for example, we are helping the development of collections in Middle Eastern craft at the V&A, communist currency for the British Museum, and Scandinavian jewellery for the National Museums of Scotland.

This is all as it should be: museums finding the excitement of putting together for the public new objects, new
stories, and new thinking, from anywhere in the world. Abandoning our place in Europe will, I fear, make this more difficult, but we will persevere. We are determined to maintain the spirit of international cooperation, understanding and
sharing that has been fundamental to European culture over the centuries. The referendum result is undoubtedly a severe setback, but we can and must make sure we recover from it in the best possible way. Art Fund promises to be part of that endeavour. 

This article appears in Art Quarterly's autumn 2016 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass.

Tags: Art QuarterlyMuseums and galleriesSupporting museums