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Things That Have Interested Me

You Shouldn't Have

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
12 May 2007

They must be feeling reasonably well pleased at the Seattle Art Museum, where a campaign to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the museum's foundation has resulted in the donation of more than 1,000 works of art, valued at more than $1bn. Originally, according to a report in this month's Art Newspaper, the board had thought of encouraging a group donation of a "mere" 75 works of art. But, says the deputy director, Chiyo Ishikawa, "We quickly abandoned that and decided that to do something piecemeal would be a mistake." Hence the acquisition campaign.

The dynamics of the group donation are very interesting. Instead of the 53 donors being asked individually to part with something from their collections, they were encouraged to think of themselves as "a community of collectors and to think of our individual collecting in relation to what others were collecting, and with an eye to giving things for the museum". Not only would the net result of this group donation be a very big bang indeed; it would, as it were, be a coordinated bang - on much the same principle as a wedding present list. If X were to give, say, his Brancusi, Y might decide that her Brancusi (being perhaps a less interesting example of the artist's work) might look a little shabby beside X's. The motivation would be, perhaps, to make sure that one's own donation not only made sense as something the museum needed, but also looked respectable when displayed with those of rival donors. Thoughts must have formed in Seattle minds along the lines of: "If the Joneses are giving their best Brancusi, we should give our best Hopper."

The average value of the works of art donated seems to have been $1m, and the average individual contribution was about 20 works of art. But many of the objects donated must have been worth far more than $1m - the brass version of Brancusi's Bird in Space, the Hopper painting (a familiar image called Chop Suey, showing two cloche-hatted women in a sun-lit restaurant), works by the likes of Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

It will be extremely interesting to examine the whole list, which must also include many items of lesser (monetary) value, including photographs, Native American, African and Aboriginal Australian works. A thousand objects, representing the interests and the taste of art collectors in a particular area of the States, probably for the most part acquired relatively recently by their owners: what better way of documenting the collecting patterns of the day? As far as one can tell from the report, the emphasis is on 20th-century and contemporary work, although some old masters are included.

No one who has anything to do with British galleries and museums could read such a report without a certain wistfulness. Not only was this acquisitions programme an amazing success, but it took place at a time when the Seattle Art Museum was expanding its buildings, having just opened a sculpture park. There was no enforced choice between a building programme and an acquisitions push. The two efforts went hand in hand.

This is Seattle, however, and Seattle enjoys certain advantages not easily reproduced elsewhere. One thinks of Microsoft and the newly established fortunes. The director of the Seattle Art Museum, Mimi Gardner Gates, is Bill Gates's stepmother. She is quoted as saying that "we built the Sculpture Park and the expansion to catch the local collections and make sure they stay in town", and one can see here the basis of an appeal to local civic pride. People in Seattle and nearby Portland, in my experience, are used to being the inhabitants of somewhat remote cities, and do not need to have it explained to them that the more they support their local art institutions and events, the richer and more interesting life becomes for everyone.

Not every American city could tap into that same sense of being a success in the making - indeed, there are some, such as Detroit, where great institutions have struggled to keep up. But, generally speaking, the museums and galleries of the States have had one great advantage that could easily be emulated in Britain, and for which there has been a long and so far fruitless campaign - namely, that donors are able to offset donations to charitable institutions against tax.

In Britain, this privilege is reserved for the dead: one can arrange for a work of art to be left to the nation, and one can express the wish that it should go to a particular institution, in lieu of tax, on one's death. What one cannot do is make a similar deal during one's life. But the language in which the Art Newspaper report is couched gives a clear indication of what is happening in Seattle and such places: some objects are described as "promised gifts", or as "partial promised gifts". These promises have a legal meaning, and reflect forward tax planning of the donors.

If you take the view that what this means is that the American taxpayer is the philanthropist in Seattle, and that the donors are merely enjoying one of the many privileges of the rich, then you may indeed be against extending the system to this country. But if you take that view, you ought also, in my opinion, to be prepared to explain how you would fund the expansion and the acquisition programmes of our museums and galleries. I have every sympathy with the old-fashioned view that the state should pay - as long as the state actually does pay (as the Spanish state pays for the acquisitions of the Prado). But if the state takes the "can't pay, won't pay" line, then something else has to be thought up. It's not very honest to reject the American system without coming up with an alternative: to expect our institutions to "eat the air, promise-crammed".

As things stand, when a British institution has a fundraising arm in the States, an "American Friends" founded under American charitable law, then an American taxpayer can offset donations to a British institution against tax, because what he is giving to is an American charity (which then hands the money over to the British institution). But a British taxpayer cannot do this. He has to die first. And this business of dying first is - how shall I put this? - a disincentive.

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