The Art Fund subverted: they were only playing leapfrog

The separate bodies contributing to State Art are now so interrelated, so cosily acquainted, their personnel so readily interchangeable and of identical mindset, that they might as well join forces. (… Liz Forgan is sacked from the Arts Council but remains a Trustee of the Art Fund; James Lingwood swallows his annual  million from the Arts Council and also sits as a Trustee of the Art Fund which has bought a work he commissioned, and so on – I could fill this column ten times over with similar complacent overlaps.) Imagine the savings on personnel and rent alone if the Contemporary Art Society (now funded and run by a former employee of the Arts Council), The Art Fund (headed by an ex-director of the Tate), the Arts and British Councils and the Tates (also directed by a former Arts Council employee) stopped pretending they pursued distinct objectives and pooled resources.

The Art Fund is the latest to dump any semblance of independence. It is nominally a charity, if, that is, you count bankrolling the already well supplied as

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‘charitable’. If the Salvation Army doled out caviare to nobs in Mayfair there would be a fuss. But the Art Fund regularly does the equivalent.

It was founded by altruists in 1903 solely to help museums buy works of art. It gives £6.3 million a year in grants, spreading it thinly across scores of acquisitions, including some important ones. Its core activities are still nobly worthwhile and more than ever necessary.

Recently, it announced it would 502 Bad Gateway fund two British tours: Jeremy Deller’s ‘immersive works’ (don’t ask) created for the British pavilion at this summer’s Venice Biennale, and Grayson Perry’s six large caricature tapestries on the subject of British life and taste. Why is a charity sponsoring the promotion of Perry and of a Tate trustee, Deller, who are among the most visible, wealthy and successful of recent British artists? And why aren’t their dealers paying for these tours from which they will all benefit? Deller’s exhibition in Venice, funded by the British Council (the tour of his inflatable Stonehenge is already, by the way, covered by the Arts Council), cost over half a million of public money to stage. Why is Deller worth even more from the limited resources of yet another much tinier charity? None of this makes sense. Unless of course there is a privately agreed national consensus between a raft of organisations, public and private, whose objectives – for whatever reason – are to promote the same few reputations.

In their recent accounts the Fund crows its contribution of £200,000 towards Rachel Whiteread’s infantile defacement of a listed masterpiece, Charles Townsend’s Whitechapel Art Gallery. Again, here is lavish support of a successful, regularly exhibited artist represented by a leading world dealer. Charity? Really? Additionally, they funded the Tate’s purchase for £125,000 of five Whiteread ‘drawings’, or diagrams as they used


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to be known – they now have 30 of her works.

The Fund also oversees the annual £100,000 Gulbenkian Museum of the Year whose judges are perennially lazy, predictable and uninspired. It is responsible too for administering ‘Artists’ Rooms’, an overpriced and dubious blunt instrument of State Art which ensures the circulation of work by top brands around regional museums, apparently ­– God help us – in perpetuity.

The Fund’s magazine, Art Quarterly, formerly a purveyor of scholarly articles, is now a yappy promotional brochure for State Art. The current issue advertises three artist trustees of the Tate, each of whom receives the Fund’s cash. In the case of Wolfgang Tillmans, they contributed £95,000 towards buying 15 of his pictures for Glasgow Art Gallery having the previous year given £62,000 for the purchase of nine others of his works by the Arts Council, which has £450 million a year of its own to spend. The Tate already owns 62 works by Tillmans. Why this obsession with an indifferent German photographer?

But all is not bleak. In 2011 when the Fund announced public purchase of Yinka Shonibare’s Fourth Plinth bottle the published cost was £362,500. As we demonstrated at the time this was a lie repeated in all newspapers. In their recent accounts the figure has now shot up to £650,000. They’re getting there, slowly.

David Lee

The Jackdaw, September/October 2013