Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai (Omai) saved for the UK public by a historic campaign

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Omai (Mai), c1776, installation view

The painting has been jointly acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and Getty, ensuring public access to the work forever.

We are pleased to announce today that the National Portrait Gallery and Getty’s innovative collaboration to jointly acquire Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai (Omai) has been successful.

The gallery has raised £25 million which, thanks in huge part to a grant of £10m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, an Art Fund grant of £2.5m, together with a matching amount from Getty in the US, makes up the £50m needed to acquire the painting.

The National Portrait Gallery and Art Fund’s fundraising campaign has been made possible thanks to an extraordinary collaborative effort, including:

  • An exceptional grant of £10m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, one of its most significant awards for saving a heritage treasure for the UK

  • An Art Fund grant of £2.5m, the largest in its history

  • Major contributions were also received from The Portrait Fund, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and Julia and Hans Rausing, and support also came from the Idan and Batia Ofer Family Foundation and David & Emma Verey Charitable Trust, as well as many other generous trusts, foundations and individuals

  • Donations from over 2,000 Art Fund members, National Portrait Gallery supporters and members of the public, giving gifts of all sizes

The shared ownership of the work and strategic partnership between the National Portrait Gallery and Getty is the result of an innovative model of international collaboration that enablesand maximises public access to the work in perpetuity. The two institutions will share the painting for public exhibition, research and conservation care.

The painting will first be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery when it reopens on 22 June 2023 following a major transformation project, and will later be shown at other institutions across the UK. Mai will travel periodically between the UK and the US, sharing time equally between them. The first Getty presentation will be in 2026, including the period when Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Olympic Games.

The acquisition is taking place in the year of the tricentenary of Joshua Reynolds’ birth in 1723 in Plympton, Devon.

Reynolds’ spectacular Portrait of Mai (Omai) holds a pivotal place in global art history, depicting the first Polynesian to visit Britain, and is widely regarded as the finest portrait by one of Britain’s greatest artists. Known as “Omai” in England, Mai (c1753-79) was a native of Raiatea, an island now part of French Polynesia, who travelled from Tahiti to England with Captain James Cook. He spent the years 1774-76 in London, where he was received by royalty and the intellectual elite, and became something of a celebrity. Mai returned to his homeland in 1777 and died there two years later.

Support for the campaign also came from leading artists Antony Gormley, Rebecca Salter and Richard Deacon and historians Simon Schama, David Olusoga and Simon Sebag-Montefiore. Artist Elizabeth Peyton created a new work, Omai (Afterlife) after Sir Joshua Reynolds's Portrait of Omai, 1776 (2023), inspired by the portrait.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, director, National Portrait Gallery, said: 'Reynolds’ magnificent Portrait of Mai is by far the most significant acquisition the National Portrait Gallery has ever made, and the largest acquisition the UK has ever made, along with the Titians acquired by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in 2009 and 2012. I would like to thank the 2,000 Art Fund members and National Portrait Gallery supporters across the UK and the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund for their significant and historic grants as well as the many other generous supporters. This includes major contributions from the Portrait Fund, Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and Julia and Hans Rausing, and support from the Idan and Batia Ofer Family Foundation and the David and Emma Verey Charitable Trust. Together, you have made such an unprecedented endeavour possible. My thanks also to Getty for having the vision to join us in an innovative strategic partnership to ensure this uniquely important painting enters public ownership for the first time, in Reynolds’ 300th anniversary year, so its beauty can be seen and enjoyed by everyone. Heartfelt thanks too to my wonderful colleagues and everyone who worked night and day to make the impossible possible – they have done something extraordinary for all of us.'

Dr Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said: 'Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai is not only one of the greatest masterpieces of British art, but also the most tangible and visually compelling manifestation of Europe’s first encounters with the peoples of the Pacific islands. The opportunity for Getty to partner with the Gallery in acquiring and presenting this work to audiences in Britain and California, and from around the world, represents an innovative model that we hope will encourage others to think creatively about how major works of art can most effectively be shared. The myriad artistic, historical, and cultural issues that Mai’s portrait raises for 21st-century viewers and researchers will be the starting point for a joint research project led by the Gallery and Getty in the years ahead.'

Lord Smith of Finsbury, chairman, Art Fund, said: 'When an exceptional work of art comes up for sale, Art Fund stands ready to help museums in the UK bring the work into a public collection, for everyone to enjoy. Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Mai (Omai) is just such a painting, and it's a tribute to the National Portrait Gallery and Getty's innovative shared ownership model that the painting will now be publicly accessible, forever. Art Fund is delighted to have awarded a grant of £2.5 million – the largest in our 120-year history – and grateful to the incredible generosity of over 2,000 Art Fund members, National Portrait Gallery supporters, individuals and trusts who swiftly gave to our appeal. We also thank the trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund for their significant support towards this acquisition, a powerful statement of the importance of bringing this work of art into public view in the UK. The collective effort to save this painting has been remarkable.'

Watch the campaign film with Simon Schama

To support the campaign, historian Simon Schama takes a look at this incredible portrait and explains what makes it such an important work.
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