Museums keen to bolster ties with philanthropists

Museums Sheffield seminar highlights the need for a more formal arrangement to be established and for better connection
Caroline Parry
The relationship between museums and galleries, and philanthropists, is complex but a seminar about the subject has revealed that both sides are keen to work together more effectively.

Museums Sheffield’s Going Public event, which was held on 20 September, was part of an ongoing initiative by the museum service to explore how public galleries and philanthropists can develop meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships.

Jo Baring, the director and curator of the Ingram Collection of Modern British Art, which comprises more than 600 works collected by entrepreneur and philanthropist Chris Ingram, says: “It is important that we keep talking about the relationship between philanthropists and museums, particularly for smaller and regional museums.”

Baring, who spoke at the Going Public seminar, says collectors and museums need to be better connected.

Formal arrangement

“There is a need for something more formal for both sides,” Baring says. “It should be something that could help museums meet local collectors that want to get involved, but also offer advice to those collectors about how to get started.

“It has always been down to us to be proactive, but there is a need for some sort of formal role to help facilitate this shift towards philanthropy.”

While there is a suggestion that a body such as the Art Fund could perform that role, James Knox, the director of the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation, one of the most significant collections of privately owned Scottish art, suggests the various art foundations and collectors should take the lead.

“We should get together to promote what we have, as the foundations all have a network of collectors,” Knox says. “We don’t compete, so we can be complementary.”

Lara Wardle, the curator at the Jerwood Collection, part of the Jerwood Foundation, says a standardisation of the loans procedure would be helpful.

“There is a huge amount of work that could be done in terms of making it a standard process across museums,” she says. “I understand why the documentation needs to be done, but it is time consuming to work through, and that can be difficult for private individuals to face up to.”

Wardle says Tate has done a lot of work in this area, but adds that it would be helpful to share its best practice more widely, and also to have it overseen by a single body.

Baring says a simple process would benefit private collectors who are just starting to loan works.

“These people tend to want to start doing things straight away, otherwise they just move on,” she says.

A more structured approach to philanthropy would also help highlight to museums and galleries how flexible foundations can be. Fleming-Wyfold and Jerwood have a philanthropic purpose to loan works and promote their collections to the public.

Knox says: “Museums and galleries are always looking for fresh content or niche exhibitions. Private collections are a useful means for doing that.”

Kirstie Hamilton, the head of exhibitions and display at Museums Sheffield and project lead for Going Public, says it is difficult for museums to work with private foundations if they are under-resourced.

“Many museums have a small staff base with lots to do just for the everyday running of the museum,” she says. “How do you develop these relationships, which really do need to be nurtured?”

Hamilton admits it has meant working and thinking differently, but Museums Sheffield has grown in confidence and developed the ability to communicate why it is important for private collectors to get involved with its venues.

“There is so much potential,” she adds. “We are out here for anyone who wants advice.”

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