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‘Setting people against objects makes for a grim discussion’

5 October 2020

The following is the editor’s letter from the October 2020 issue of Apollo. Subscribe here

In mid September, the Observer reported that ‘a group of angry Royal Academicians’ was lobbying for the sale of the Taddei Tondo, the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in the UK, in ‘an audacious rescue bid’ to protect against anticipated job losses at the institution. The Covid-19 crisis has endangered the Royal Academy, as it has so many museums and arts organisations; as an independent charity that receives no government subsidies, the RA relies heavily on the revenue it generates from visitors and through fundraising, neither of which can be counted on during a pandemic. Days before the Observer’s story, the RA had informed employees that it would begin consultations that are likely to lead to 150 redundancies, around 40 per cent of its workforce that is, as part of efforts to cut its annual costs by £8m.

A statement from the RA swiftly scotched the proposed sale. ‘The Royal Academy of Arts has no intention of selling any works in its collection,’ it said. ‘It is our duty to look after our permanent collection, for current and future generations to enjoy.’ It is a bleak sign of the times that such a suggestion should be made, however; canard or not, the idea that artists should advocate the divestment of one of the most revered sculptures in the country, from a publicly accessible collection, is indicative of just how desperate the situation for museums has become. Indeed, that some academicians would float such a polemical solution to the RA’s financial troubles may be a glimmer of consolation, though perhaps not quite hope, to those whose livelihoods are threatened.

Desperate times call for unprecedented measures. But in the case of the RA collection, there is a precedent, and one that might have offered a pragmatic pathway were panic not so general across the sector. Strapped for cash in 1962, the institution announced that it would sell its Leonardo cartoon at auction; facing the loss of the work to the nation, the Art Fund launched a public appeal that led to its acquisition by the National Gallery. Although many supporters of the RA would be dismayed to see the Taddei Tondo go, few could dispute a comparable transfer of the work into the national collection of sculpture at the V&A – realising funds with which the RA could endow jobs. But in the current climate, it is hard to imagine that such an acquisition campaign would find favour, and certainly not one focused on two London-based institutions or on what would be an unheard-of scale.

Deaccessioning is proscribed in the case of ‘financially motivated disposals’ by the Museum Accreditation scheme run by Arts Council England (and the RA’s accredited status would, in theory, prohibit it from making such a sale). It is a fundamental tenet of the sector that museums act as custodians of their collections for a public that encompasses future generations. If museum collections were to become assets to be liquidated on the open market whenever revenues plummeted, they would start to resemble the corporate collections, so readily dispersed, that Melanie Gerlis writes about in the October 2020 issue of Apollo. Then again, if large arts institutions are compelled to make large numbers of employees redundant during a crisis, perhaps they already coincide more closely with private companies than they would care to admit. Either way, setting people against objects makes for a grim discussion; museums should be places that open up the inexhaustible relations between people and objects, not the competition between them.

Is it too outlandish to suggest that museums with the holdings to do so, and in financial peril, might leverage a handful of works rather than selling them? That the Taddei Tondo – for example, and notwithstanding its fragile condition – could be loaned to a private individual for an extended period in return for a meaningful fee? It is an unseemly proposition, perhaps, but one made in the belief that this too shall pass, and that a temporary sacrifice might safeguard livelihoods now and objects for the future. There is a precedent here, too, or at least a counterpart in the context of accessioning: in 2015, the National Gallery was able to acquire a panel painting by Giovanni da Rimini thanks to a donation from Ronald S. Lauder, on the agreement that Lauder has possession of the work, but that it will be displayed regularly in the gallery, during his lifetime.

Since the crisis began, the Association of American Art Directors has relaxed its rules on deaccessioning. Previously, museums could only sell works in order to raise funds for new acquisitions; until 2022, they will be allowed to ‘use the proceeds from deaccessioned art to pay for expenses associated with the direct care of collections’ – as the Brooklyn Museum stated it would do in announcing the sale of 12 Old Master paintings, including the only Cranach in its collection, to establish a fund that is projected to raise $2m for collection care annually. We are in uncharted territory; navigating it will not be a comfortable experience.

From the October 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.