Acquired knowledge - Museums Association

Acquired knowledge

Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar tells Simon Stephens about his passion for collecting and the way forward for museum acquisitions.
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Simon Stephens
Stephen Deuchar had only been director of the Art Fund for a few weeks when he helped the charity secure the £3.3m Staffordshire Hoard for the West Midlands. And not long after he was awarded a CBE – it’s a shame that all jobs don’t start this well.

But Deuchar was not given his CBE for his short period at the Art Fund, it was for his 12 years as director of Tate Britain. He joined what was known as the Tate Gallery of British Art in 1998 after 12 years as a curator at the National Maritime Museum, London.

His time at Tate saw the gallery renamed Tate Britain in 2000 to coincide with the opening of Tate Modern as the collections were divided across two London sites, with Tate Britain focusing on British art.

“It was a wonderful opportunity,” says Deuchar, “not least because the idea of a gallery of national art as opposed to a national gallery of art might have struck people as being slightly anachronistic, so the challenge was to create something that was very contemporary in its concerns.”

Deuchar set about doing this by developing interpretation that placed British art in a wider context. “I liked displaying art in a way that made people think beyond the object itself and into the history and culture that surrounds it,” he says.

“That was something that hadn’t really been done with any great enthusiasm at the Tate in the past as it was associated with the newer kinds of art history that came in the 1980s, which I felt were important.”

As well as the creation of permanent displays that looked beyond the narrow concerns of traditional art history, an ambitious programme of temporary exhibitions was central to offering something new to visitors.

“I hope we created a gallery that liked to challenge and not simply to reaffirm people’s views of why individual artists were great or why themes were interesting but sent people away with a different understanding of art.”

This meant exploring new areas, trying to present artists such as Henry Moore and Thomas Gainsborough in a fresh light and banishing some of the cliches that often surround famous names.

The third strand of Deuchar’s programme at Tate Britain involved raising the international profile of British art. “There is this kind of missionary responsibility at Tate Britain that one has to try and make British art seem significant around the world,” Deuchar says.

“I spent a lot of time working on the international programme. One of the last projects I did was taking Turner to Beijing, the first major Turner show there, which was really exciting.”

The seeds were sown for his move to the Art Fund while working at Tate, where he was involved in two major acquisitions: the first was JMW Turner’s Blue Rigi, bought for nearly £5m in 2007, and then Rubens’ Sketch for the Banqueting House Ceiling in Whitehall was acquired the following year for £5.7m. Deuchar worked closely with the Art Fund in both cases.

“I loved making shows and forging the programme, but I also loved making acquisitions,” he says. “And I think I became quite passionate in my conviction that museums are about their collections. And for me, the excitement and challenge of being a curator is the challenge of acquiring cleverly and discerningly.”

But Deuchar is concerned about a loss of curatorial expertise in museums and is worried that forthcoming budget cuts will make the position of curators even more perilous. He is also all too aware that a strong network of curators is vital for the Art Fund’s future.

“The Art Fund’s trustees want to feel that in five years, ten years, a generation’s time, they as trustees, and their successors, are going to continue to be inundated with a large number of very persuasive, high-quality applications for grants to buy works of art.”

Deuchar says that for this to happen, there has to be a strong and developing degree of curatorial expertise.

“If the expertise falls away, the grant applications fall away, the frequency with which objects are collected by museums diminishes and, lo and behold, the central function of the museum as a place where objects are brought to life slips away as well.”

While Deuchar is fervent in his support for curatorial expertise, it would be wrong to see him as traditionalist.

“I’m certainly not arguing against what I think are the very great successes in curatorship over the past 10 or so years, in particular in turning towards the visitor and making the museum experience such a rich and immediate one as opposed to something slightly remote.

“But I want to encourage a model of curatorship in which those priorities are pursued in parallel with a recognition of the centrality of the museum object and its potential to unlock cultural secrets and illuminate the way that life is and might be.”

But what can the Art Fund actually do to help curatorship, beyond providing financial support for acquisitions? Deuchar points to Art Fund International (AFI) as an example of how the charity’s money can further curatorial expertise.

The initiative, set up in 2007, has given five museums £1m each to collect contemporary art. And while the AFI money is for acquisitions, it has enabled some of the museums to unlock cash from other sources for curators to travel and build up their knowledge.

“I would not rule out going one step further and trying to support the development of curatorial expertise financially alongside the acquisition of objects,” Deuchar says.

“Of course we can’t solve the problems of Britain’s curatorship single-handedly, we would need to work with others. The great institutions like the lottery fund, the national museums, the big trusts and foundations are all interested in curatorial expertise and I am hoping we are going to see some new proposals emerging from several quarters.”

Working in partnership is important, as the vast majority of Art Fund money for acquisitions is part of a patchwork of grants that come together to reach the total needed.

One of its most important partners is the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), which was set up in 1980 as a fund of last resort for items that are at risk of loss to the nation.

The NHMF gave nearly £1.3m to help secure the Staffordshire Hoard, an acquisition that was kick-started by a £300,000 grant from the Art Fund.

Acquisitions are obviously at the heart of everything the Art Fund does, but Deuchar is keen for the charity’s whole range of activities to have a stronger identity and focus.

“At the moment there is a slight sense that people know the Art Fund gives grants for works of art and they know that it speaks out on museum-sector related issues, although they are not always sure which ones and why.

“And then sometimes they see the Art Fund spending money on museum sponsorship, such as the Art Fund Prize. There is a certain confusion about whether these are additional initiatives or whether they are central initiatives.”

Deuchar says that grants for acquisitions will remain the core purpose of the Art Fund, but not the only purpose.

“We are ultimately concerned with public benefit and public benefit gleaned through the experience of art in museums. And there are a number of ways beyond simply acquiring art that this benefit can be received.”

Deuchar’s strategy seems to imply that initiatives such as the Art Fund’s support of artist Steve McQueen’s campaign to get the Royal Mail to issue his Queen and Country stamps of soldiers killed during the Iraq war will be jettisoned.

But he is enthusiastic about other projects, including the charity’s support of the Artist Rooms tour, describing it as “a wonderful and very productive experiment”.

The tour of the works acquired by Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland from dealer Anthony d’Offay in 2008 has brought high-quality art to locations all over the UK.

Deuchar also says the charity has been pleased with its sponsorship of the £100,000 Art Fund Prize, and the signs look good for continued backing, at least for another two years.

Lobbying on initiatives to support museum collecting will obviously carry on and Deuchar is hopeful that the new coalition government will look again at the issue of lifetime giving.

But he says for any change to happen the debate needs to move on from being about whether it is desirable to give tax breaks to the wealthy to how changes to lifetime giving could transfer important works of art into public ownership.

“What I think museums could usefully do, and we’d like to work with them on this, is to argue the case more creatively about the way changes in lifetime-giving arrangements would benefit them as receiving institutions.”

Deuchar says you only have to look at countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and Germany for examples of great works of art that have come into the public domain because of tax regimes that have encouraged it.

“Amidst the gloom of the inevitable spending cuts, some real change on that front would be really welcome.”

There is no getting away from the fact that the next few years are going to be difficult for museums and galleries, but grant-giving organisations such as the Art Fund will help some to ease at least a little bit of the pain. And Deuchar is keen to work with as many museums as possible.

“I would ask museums to always think about applying to the Art Fund when they are thinking about acquisitions. They shouldn’t assume that we wouldn’t support them.

“We have a very broad view of acquisitions and we like helping museums from the very smallest to the very largest. And we are interested in public benefit whether it is in London or the Outer Hebrides.”

Stephen Deuchar at a glance

Stephen Deuchar replaced David Barrie as director of the Art Fund in January after 12 years at Tate. He joined Tate as the director of the Tate Gallery of British Art, which was renamed Tate Britain in 2000.

He oversaw redisplays of the permanent collection in 2000 and 2001 as well as the launch of the £30m Centenary Project. He also developed a programme of temporary exhibitions that included shows on Lucian Freud, Bridget Riley and Anthony Caro. He organised the Turner Prize from 1999.

Before Tate, Deuchar spent 12 years as a curator and then exhibitions director at the National Maritime Museum, London. He has a PHD in art history from the University of London.

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