Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Physical Impossibility of Buying and Selling in the Minds of the UK Museum Establishment

The breakdown of talks between the Arts Council and Charles Saatchi over Mr Saatchi's plan to donate his gallery and collection to the public touches on a critical issue facing museums today. How to sustain the institution as a dynamic entity without engaging more actively with the market?

According to The Independent (Saatchi rues lost art of conversation as gallery donation talks collapse), the discussions broke down over the mooted plan to part-finance the new publicly-owned gallery by buying and selling works from the £25 million collection. (Incidentally, that valuation seems absurdly low given the hike in prices since Saatchi first invested in work by Damien Hirst and his Brit-Art cohorts in the late 1980s).

How to engage with the art market is arguably the thorniest issue confronting museums today. The Code of Ethics that underpins the UK Museums Association expressly forbids the sort of commercial activities which, over the last twenty years, have allowed Charles Saatchi to build the institution that bears his name. But if the relevant chapters on ethics in my copy of The Handbook for Museums are anything to go by, one can see why most museum mandarins still see the art market as shark infested waters.

It's those two dirty words — buying and selling — that stick in the curator's craw. If you keep to the guidelines, then buying doesn't present an ethical problem (although in economic terms buying is now more difficult than ever as art market prices rocket, museum management costs rise too, and acquisitions budgets whither accordingly.) But selling — or 'deaccessioning' to use museum jargon — is another matter altogether.

Like him or loathe him, Charles Saatchi has been instrumental in expanding British public awareness of contemporary art, using his resources to build a collection that the public visits in droves. In principle, his approach has not been all that different from that pursued by the great proto-museum pioneers of the European Enlightenment who began by sourcing objects from around the world and building collections for their own delectation before donating them to the nation. The British Museum would not exist today without the intellectual curiosity and pioneering acquisitiveness of Sir Hans Sloane, but there are numerous other examples — the Wallace Collection and Dulwich Picture Gallery to name just two.

The eighteenth-century Weltanschauung from which the British Museum emerged still dominates museum thinking in Europe. It has become a seriously constraining factor, notwithstanding a prevailing belief in the crowd-pulling power of contemporary art that most museums now strive to capitalize upon.

Saatchi's decision to offer his collection to the public was grounded in a desire that it would be "a living and evolving collection of work, rather than an archive of art history". That is a model that many museums aspire to, but which few will ever attain without a step change in attitudes towards deaccessioning.

This is not a manifesto for commercialising museums, or for turning museum directors into corporate CEOs (many fulfill that role already). Rather it's a call for a more enlightened approach to collections and for more innovative ways to engage with the market.

Finally, some of the resistance to Saatchi's donation seems based on a fear that it might in some way conflict with Tate Modern. Tate Modern may be an incredible building — with an even more striking extension rising as I write — but the collection is decidedly second-rate. That too can be blamed on British museum conservatism at a time when America was pioneering taste.

The Saatchi Collection remains a big draw for tourists. There's no reason why it shouldn't continue to be so without taking anything away from Tate. But if the talks don't progress just because of Establishment sensibilities over 'buying and selling', one can be fairly sure Saatchi will look to donate his collection elsewhere.

Then, like Ms Emin, London will have made its bed and will have to lie in it.

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