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It’s vital that objects from national collections are shown more widely

4 July 2018

It was interesting to read the recent news that the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris decided against lending 57 works by Monet to the new Musée Mer Marine in Bordeaux, following concerns about site conditions. This is an issue that UK museums hoping to borrow from national collections will be familiar with, as it forms a necessary part of the initial discussions with a potential lender.

This presents problems for curators in museums who might have plans for an ambitious exhibition that would benefit significantly from the inclusion of a key piece from a national collection, but cannot deliver the project as they don’t have the infrastructure to meet the loan conditions. It was in recognition of this problem that Arts Council England launched the ‘Ready to Borrow’ programme in 2016, offering funding to museums in England to upgrade their exhibition spaces in preparation for taking major loans. This programme has now come to a close.

Even if the required security measures and environmental controls are in place, the process of managing a significant loan is costly and time consuming, both for the borrower and lender. Identifying potential objects, submitting a formal loan request and agreeing the loan can take up to a year to complete; the borrower must also find the resources to pack, transport and install the work, then de-install and return it at the end of the exhibition. The Touring Exhibition Group’s ‘Preparing to Borrow’ initiative ‘supports colleagues to acquire the knowledge and confidence to make an application to borrow an object or exhibition’, but for curators that are already at capacity and experiencing severe funding cuts, a loan project can still seem like a daunting task.

Enabling more people to see objects from national collections is undeniably a good thing: visitors don’t need to travel vast distances to see and learn from the outstanding cultural objects we are privileged to have here in the UK, the recipient museum can use the opportunity to draw in visitors and raise its profile, and our shared national collection becomes genuinely national.

Research undertaken by the Art Fund has uncovered countless examples of how, when done well, sharing collections can bolster curatorial and institutional skills, raise the public profile of regional museums, and strengthen the health and vitality of the sector overall. Curators in York and Glasgow, for example, have worked with the British Museum to establish ‘partnership galleries’, made up of long-term loans of objects from the extensive national collections of Roman and Egyptian material that complement the regional collections they are displayed alongside. The British Museum also lends single objects, such as the Gayer-Anderson Egyptian cat which, whilst at Brent Museum in 2009, led to a 28 per cent increase in visitor figures. The British Museum has since developed a specific ‘spotlight’ loan programme.

Tate, meanwhile, has used major acquisitions to inspire innovative loan programmes designed to strengthen audience development. Supported in part by the Art Fund, their acquisition of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) has been the stimulus for an extraordinary five-year partnership between five museums nationwide that is driving up visitor figures and engagement. A gallery in Ipswich used the painting’s display in 2016 to achieve a 230 per cent increase in visitor figures.

So, if we can agree that it is important that museums across the UK are able to borrow from the national collections, we must also appreciate that they need external support to do so. This is why the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund was launched in 2017, generously supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation and stemming from an idea of their trustee Sophia Mason. Both organisations recognised the value of national collections being shared more widely across the UK, but acknowledged that lack of funding was a barrier.

Launched to coincide with the Garfield Weston Foundation’s 60th anniversary, the programme provides funding to regional museums to secure important, strategic loans. It covers a range of costs associated with borrowing works, from preparing and transporting pieces to managing various administrative tasks. Crucially, however, the funding helps borrowing museums to maximise on opportunities around the loan, specifically within the context of its own collections and community. This could include presentation and marketing costs, audience engagement, or whatever else makes most sense for the individual museum.

Thirteen projects were supported in the first round. The first of these saw the National Portrait Gallery lend eight self-portraits by artists including Lucian Freud and Eduardo Paolozzi to Rugby Art Gallery for their recent ‘About Face’ exhibition. The display has become Rugby Art Gallery’s most successful to date – attracting roughly 70 per cent more visitors than previous shows.

We are now looking forward to delivering second and third rounds of funds in 2018 and 2019. We hope that the programme will empower museums of all sizes to approach the nationals with confidence, and to develop ambitious loan and exhibition proposals for the benefit of their visitors.

It is welcome news that, following recommendations made in the Mendoza Review, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, the National Museums Directors’ Council, and Arts Council England are working together on a partnership framework that will enable national museums to share their collections more strategically across England. We look forward to seeing what is published in September.

In the meantime, the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund is open for its second round of applications, until 11 September, and we’d encourage any museum that would like to borrow from a national collection to get in touch with us to discuss a potential proposal for funding.

Penny Bull is senior programmes manager at the Art Fund.

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