Reinvigorating our regional collections

Philippa Charles, Issue 118/12, 01.12.2018
Philippa Charles is the director of the Garfield Weston Foundation
This summer, I had the opportunity to see, up close, one of the indisputable treasures of our nation collections: the ornately decorated Becket Casket. It shows the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, by four knights in the service of Henry II, and is believed to have once contained the saint’s relics.

However, I was not looking at this famous piece of medieval history in South Kensington – where the casket usually resides as a star object in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection – but in Peterborough, as the centrepiece of a Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery exhibition that reunites the city’s historical treasures. Seeing the casket alongside other objects originating from the Cambridgeshire city was a first and, coupled with the museum’s own fascinating collection, it offered a fresh perspective.

The loan was made possible by a partnership between the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund. The three-year programme – which was developed from an idea by Weston Foundation trustee Sophia Mason – provides financial and practical support to enable loans from national collections to museums across the country.

From its inception, the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund has addressed a vital need: our national museums wishing to widen access to the collections they hold and institutions across the UK seeking to share these works with their audiences.

The programme helps manage the considerable financial barriers to borrowing works of national significance – the cost of transporting art and objects can be beyond the reach of smaller, cash-strapped, local authority museums.

When this economic reality is combined with increasingly long lead times for securing loans, a potential lack of specialist knowledge, demanding environmental requirements and the means to maximise the opportunity from a marketing standpoint, it seems an almost impossible task.

Responsiveness and a desire to support ambition are part of the DNA of both the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, so we created our £750,000 funding and training scheme to meet this need. The response has been overwhelming and we’ve been blown away by the ideas and creativity of museums.

Our trustees are delighted to provide the means for the greater sharing of art and, just as importantly, to help empower museums of all sizes to approach the nationals with confidence and ambition for the benefit of their audiences.

The scheme’s impact has been incredibly encouraging. Rugby Art Gallery’s recent About Face exhibition included loans from London’s National Portrait Gallery of self-portraits by artists such as Lucian Freud and Eduardo Paolozzi. It was the museum’s most successful exhibition ever, attracting about 70% more visitors than previous shows.

Through the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund, some of the most talented curators in the UK have conceived the art, objects and exhibitions to transform an audience experience. Seeing the first projects come to life in 2018 – the 60th anniversary of the Garfield Weston Foundation – has been exciting.

The programme has also demonstrated how a truly national collection
of art can operate: empowered and equipped museums across the country, sharing our national treasures with audiences locally, creating a new context for the objects and reinvigorating our precious regional collections.