Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I popped into the National Gallery in central London today, mainly because I wanted to look at Raphael's The Madonna of the Pinks , about which there is presently a little bit of a fuss. Basically, the story behind the painting is that many copies of Raphael's original were painted in the 16th century. Until 10 years ago, the original was believed lost, and the painting in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland was believed to be one of the copies. However, one of the curators of the National Gallery saw it, thought it was a particularly good copy, and carefully investigated it and determined that it was in fact Raphael's original. The painting has been on loan to the the National Gallery since then and is considered one of the best ten paintings or so in the National Gallery. (It's not a striking painting in terms of size, but it is a beautiful painting. The expression on the face of the baby Jesus is really quite marvelous, somehow).

However, the Duke of Northumberland has decided to sell the painting for $50 million to the Getty museum in Los Angeles. If this was New York and it was the Metropolitan, then no doubt some wealthy benefactor would step in and match the price. However, this is London and there are not that many people that rich and there is less of a tradition of philanthropy.

British law requires that the Duke sell the painting to a British buyer rather than a foreign buyer if the British buyer can match the price and the government specifies that the painting is a treasure that should not leave the country. (In the event that a British museum can raise the money, they will certainly do this).

Therefore, the National Gallery has launched an appeal to raise the money to buy the painting, and has applied for 20 million pounds of lottery money in order to do so.

This gets us to the peculiarly British way of dealing with tax receipts from their national lottery. Until about 10 years ago, lotteries were illegal in the UK, although there were one or two forms of betting, such as football pools, which were very close to being lotteries. However, the Major government decided to change this, and a monopoly licence was granted and a lottery was introduced. Rather than the taxes on the lottery being simply funnelled into general government revenue, as happens in most places including my native Australia, a significant portion of the taxes were placed into a fund for "good causes", and a body of trustees got to allocate the money for funding for the arts, for building sporting stadiums, and essentially for funding other activities that were perceived as worthwhile but which the government could not justify funding from general revenue. (The great debacle paid for out of lottery money is the millenium dome). It is from this "good causes" fund that the National Gallery seeks to obtain the money to buy the Raphael.

Personally, I find this practice indefensible. A tax on a lottery ticket is surely no different from a sales tax on a packet of cigarettes, or a hamburger bought in McDonald's or on anything else. The government has a duty to its voters to use the money wisely and in the public interest. (Governments may not always do so, but they have such a duty none the less). The "good causes" fund seems to somehow be an excuse to subvert this: the money can instead be spent on minority, elitest interests, and the spending the money is not subject to the same scrutiny and accountability to voters as is the spending of other government revenue. And I seriously cannot see why it should not be. The question should be, would it be appropriate to buy the painting for the gallery out of peoples income taxes, because as far as I am concerned it is the same thing. And, to be honest, I also cannot see why so much public money should be spent on this painting. I would rather the government devoted its time and money to more prosaic things like schools and health.

I have to say I prefer the American model to the British model. American museums are generally more run by private foundations and by donations from benefactors. Yes, the separation between government and private ownership is often blurry in America too, and public money is often used for the running costs of museums, but the Americans seem to avoid situations where huge amounts of public money are to be used for acquisitions.

For all that, the National Gallery in London has a magnificent collection of art and I visit it frequently, and this is at least partly thanks to many British governments of the past, so I am not entirely dogmatic on this. I think my position more has to do with the amount of money that the painting would cost than any great principle). And the other reason I feel this way is that in the end, I have to say I don't think it would be a catastrophe for the painting to end up in the Getty museum. Here we have a young but great city that has established an art museum whose benefactors want to build up a world class collection. This is the last known Raphael in private hands, and the last chance that the Getty museum has to acquire such a painting. The loss to the people of London is more than made up by the gain to the people of Los Angeles, and if the painting ends up in LA I will no doubt drop in to the Getty museum and look at it some time. I think without question that having the painting in a fine museum in LA is much better than having it lying disregarded in the home of the Duke of Northumberland, which was the case for many decades. If in a few decades if the Getty museum in LA has world class collection, then this is surely a good thing.

And of course an ironic fact is that when you walk in to the National Gallery, on your left you find a bust of Sir Paul Getty. If you look at the lists of benefactors on the wall in the National Gallery, members of the Getty family are listed again and again and again. Plus, in the National Gallery, there is a contribution box into which you can donate money to the fund to keep the Raphael in Britain. Just looking in, it was striking how many greenbacks were in the box. British art lovers have much to thank America for.

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