London’s Royal Academy of Arts (RA) says it has “no intention” of selling a Michelangelo sculpture despite reported calls from its Royal Academicians to do so.
At the weekend, the Observer newspaper reported that a group of Royal Academicians is calling on the RA to consider selling its Taddei Tondo marble sculpture as an alternative to cutting jobs.
This follows the news that the RA is consulting on up to 150 redundancies to address financial losses due to the coronavirus pandemic, which it says amount to £8m.
The Observer quoted an anonymous Royal Academician saying the sculpture “is worth so much, it could save jobs and get the RA out of the financial mess they have got themselves into”.
The unfinished sculpture, which depicts the Virgin Mary with the infant figures of Christ and John the Baptist, is thought to have been carved by the artist between 1504 and 1505.
It was given to the RA in 1829 following the death of Lady Margaret Beaumont, the wife of the collector George Beaumont, who bought the work in 1822 and bequeathed it to the nation. It is the only sculpture by Michelangelo in a UK collection. In 2017, the Art Newspaper said the Tondo was likely to be worth “well over £100m”.
A statement from the RA said: “The Royal Academy of Arts has no intention of selling any works in its collection. We have the privilege and responsibility of being custodians of extraordinary works of art. It is our duty to look after our permanent collection, for current and future generations to enjoy.”
Over the weekend, the controversy generated a social media discussion within the museum sector.
Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum and author of a book on the Benin Bronzes, posted on Twitter: “When the Royal Academy sells the Taddei Tondo to save 150 jobs, it will be another urgent reminder that museums aren’t bank vaults, mausoleums or endpoints – but public spaces, unfinished gestures and live projects. And that we must place caring for people above caring for objects.”
Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, commented: “The MA Code of Ethics says that collections should be not normally be treated as financial assets. However, we live in exceptional times and we have to balance the principle of safeguarding collections with the principle that we should use collections for public benefit, which is also enshrined in the code.
“We can only do the latter if we have the staff, skills and programmes that can bring collections alive and connect them with communities. We are facing difficult decisions in our museums, I hope we can use the Code of Ethics to discuss these issues openly, with our staff, trustees and the public.”
Royal Academicians are practising artists elected by their peers who help steer the way the RA is run, and can also be elected onto its governing council. There are more than 100 in total.