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High art - high prices

The National Gallery's struggle to raise the cash to buy a Titian masterpiece says a lot about the art market and access to cultural works. Yesterday, the gallery announced that it has been granted a £10m lifeline by the National Heritage Memorial Fund “of last resort” to acquire the painting, currently on special loan and on view in London. This leaves it 41 days to raise a total of £50 million to secure the Titian.

Titian Diana & ActaeonDiana and Actaeon belongs to the Duke of Sutherland. Last August he announced that he wanted to sell it but would make a “bargain offer” to the National Galleries in Scotland and London of £100m to purchase it, plus its pendant, Diana and Callisto. The first £50m would have to be raised by December 31. The amount is billed as a bargain, since the painting would fetch much more than double that at auction.

Last month the National Art Fund helped out with £1m, the largest grant it has ever made in its 105-year history. Well-known artists including Lucian Freud, Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Alison Watt and Gerhard Richter have lent their support. Tracey Emin presented a letter signed by 39 artists to Downing Street, saying that they believed that “in challenging times, the heritage of the past and the heritage of the present are more important than ever”.

Sir John Tusa, chair of the University of the Arts in London and the university’s new rector Nigel Carrington, have seized the Titian issue as an chance to draw attention to a lack of funds for art colleges. Right as it is that they should highlight the need to support young and living artists and not over-emphasise the past, they are also missing the point.

In recent times, the international art market has seen unprecedented prices due to buyers like Roman Abramovich and other Russian oligarchs. It is this which gives aristocrats such as the Duke of Sutherland a powerful leverage. The reason that the Duke is selling his paintings in the first place is because he is making “an elaborate piece of inheritance tax planning”, as Lucy Warwick-Ching puts it in the Financial Times. According to the Musems and Libraries Archives Council, £15.2m was written off last year in relations to donations of art.

If arts institutions become rivals scrambling around an ever-decreasing pot of public money, they will let the government off the hook and miss the wood for the trees. As long as corporate interests especially the global auction houses rule the roost, high art and great masterpieces will be the playthings of the super rich. Art and art training will become less and less accessible to ordinary people as students accumulate vast debts and museums are obliged to charge high prices for temporary exhibitions and sell reproduction rights to global corporates.

Great public institutions like the National Gallery were formed when capitalism was in its ascendancy. In a pioneering move, Parliament provided for the creation of a gallery for all in 1824. As its site says:

With a commitment to free admission, a central and accessible site, and extended opening hours the Gallery has ensured that its collection can be enjoyed by the widest public possible, and not become the exclusive preserve of the privileged.

These great aims are clearly endangered by successive governments like New Labour who have sought to “liberate the market” and now are totally at sea. At a recent meeting with members of the Critics Circle, the new culture minister, Andy Burnham, refused to be drawn on a commitment to help secure the Titians, saying the government would “take a middle seat and broker the situation”. How mealy-mouthed can you get?

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win Secretary
19 November 2008

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