Obituary: Nancy Balfour

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The Independent Online
Nancy Balfour, journalist and arts administrator: born 17 May 1911; staff, BBC North American Service 1945-48; staff, Economist 1948- 72, Assistant Editor with responsibility for American Survey 1954-72; OBE 1965; Honorary Treasurer, Contemporary Art Society 1971-76, Chairman 1976-82, President 1984-97; Vice-Chairman, Crafts Council 1983-85; died 29 August 1997.

Nancy Balfour devoted her professional life to the Economist; she was deeply involved in its post-war innovative and broadly based analysis of social as well as economic affairs. Her fine appreciation of cultural policy issues internationally was also reflected in the magazine's surveys.

Conventional as she was in her appearance - that of an educated spinster, when the term spinster was often a short-hand way of describing the high- flying female achiever - it was perhaps a surprise to some that her profound pleasure was to apply her substantial pragmatic and managerial skills in the creative service of the contemporary art world.

Of American descent, British residence, and independent means, she listed her recreations as "sightseeing, ancient and modern; visiting living artists". She retired a few years early from her prominent but anonymous position as the editor of the American section of the Economist to work as a full- time volunteer in the arts, notably as treasurer first, then chairman, of the Contemporary Art Society.

The Contemporary Art Society was initiated in 1910 by leading figures such as the Bloomsbury artist and critic Roger Fry, Lady Ottoline Morrell, and others; its purpose has been to buy contemporary art outright for presentation to public museums and galleries.

Under Nancy Balfour's guidance, its finances stabilised; the CAS initiated a programme of disinterested advice for corporations making modern and contemporary collections; it pioneered cultural travel, and set up much of the pattern of events for members we now take for granted in the numerous Friends organisations throughout the country. She accomplished her self- imposed mission with persistent energy, taking everyone to task; she was not above going disapprovingly through the desk drawers of her CAS administrator. Her nickname, partly due to her short stature and her habit of taking verbal nips at her colleagues and associates, was "Gnasher".

Balfour loved a good argument; when fellow guests took each other to pieces over some point or other at her parties, she basked in the verbal fireworks. She enjoyed telling people what she thought they ought to do to further the causes nearest her heart; but she appreciated debate, discussion and disagreement.

For her 70th birthday, artists she had supported and befriended produced a wonderful book of original drawings; the CAS masterminded an 80th birthday party at the Tate, amongst the earliest beneficiaries of CAS largesse; and her 85th was a major art-world turn-out at the Serpentine.

She tirelessly introduced people of like interests to each other, and consciously linked the cultures of the United States and Britain. After her retirement from both the Economist and the CAS, she spent a year at the Kennedy Centre at Harvard.

Nancy Balfour lived in an ample flat in Eaton Square, where her extensive collection of contemporary art, almost exclusively British, was displayed in a domestic context. Most pieces were on a relatively small scale, and she delighted in purchasing the new and upcoming as well as 20th-century classics from Henry Moore to Nicholas Pope. She travelled extensively, and knew private collections and collectors throughout the West, as well as visiting the widest range of public collections.

Until her last months she was undeterred from visiting the most obscure and inaccessible exhibitions and artists' studios, often pressing friends into chauffeuring duties; she never drove, and enjoyed remarkable and robust good health; disliking the country, she was an indefatigable city walker. She was always carefully dressed in beautifully made bespoke costumes from a royal couturier, and until the end of her life her hair was tinted a gentle bronze gold.

Plain in looks, she attributed her originality and idiosyncrasy to what had obviously been an early childhood experience of difference: her mother held strong views as to dress, and the young Nancy wore socks of a different colour to those of all the other girls in her school. This early branding may explain the impulse behind her commitment to what was once the unfashionable side of the art world.

She was a devoted undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in the 1930s, and remained involved with and generous to her old college, heading its old girls' association for many years.

Spirited, cantankerous, Nancy Balfour was a bridge between private and public support of both the contemporary fine and applied arts. Dedicated to the most practical manifestations of private support, she was a missionary, encouraging the Economist itself to build an art collection and to use the terraces and foyer of its Smithson- designed building for contemporary exhibitions, and she was a tenacious supporter of public art partly through her work for the Public Art Development Trust (as trustee, 1983-91).

Although she was on many committees, Balfour's contributions in public were often muted; behind the scenes she was indefatigable, and her own trust gave quiet and unpublicised support. Her ferocious intelligence and frank, sometimes even hectoring conversation, were a combination that could be daunting, but she had a wide and varied circle of friends, and was a support and inspiration throughout the art world and beyond.