Government is starving us of aid, says National Gallery

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The Independent Online

Leaders of the National Gallery in London condemned the Government yesterday for failing to provide even basic support needed to keep its world-class collections intact.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the director, broke the code of silence among artistic administrators to blame a long-term "attrition in core funding" for forcing gallery closures and putting its future in jeopardy. He was backed by his chairman, Peter Scott, a retired QC, who outlined in a hard-hitting introduction to the gallery's annual review what the persistent erosion in funding meant.

The difficulties faced in making big acquisitions had almost reached "crisis proportions", and the decline in the annual grant left "nothing to spare". Taking inflation into account, the gallery would need an extra £2.5m on top of the 2002-03 government grant of £20.4m to match the support offered, say, eight years ago. "Ordinary people walking past this place think this is the National Gallery and is presumably paid for by the tax-payer," Mr Scott said. "This is not the case by a very considerable margin.

"We do not get from Government even the basic operating costs of this place, what it costs to open the doors, turn the lights on and look after the collection. We don't even get these costs and we get nothing for acquisitions."

In other countries in Europe and elsewhere, there would be no question of exceptional paintings such as the Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael, which the gallery hopes to acquire, being sold abroad, Mr Scott and his trustees said. "In such countries, governments accept a responsibility to protect the heritage, not leaving it to the institutions to try to find large sums, often at short notice. In addition, their governments accept responsibility for major capital expenditure on custody of the artistic heritage."

This angry condemnation is likely to infuriate and embarrass the Government, which has prided itself on real increases in support to the national museums and galleries.

The outburst is rare; much of the lobbying by the national institutions has been done behind the scenes for fear of offending the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which funds them all directly.

But yesterday's analysis of the long-term problems at the National Gallery is likely to be privately applauded by many rivals, national and regional, which have long faced a similar uphill struggle to maintain standards. There is also a widespread expectation that the arts are unlikely to be a priority in the next spending round when health and education are expected to dominate.

The impact upon the National Gallery was laid bare in yesterday's annual review. The lower galleries were often closed for two days a week and there was a constant question mark over the number of staff it could employ and the number of pictures it could display.

The National Gallery was a 160-year-old Grade I listed building, which was neither cheap nor easy to maintain. "It requires very considerable expenditure to achieve what may seem like relatively minor improvements," Mr Scott said. The impact was even greater in the past year when the general decline in foreign visitors dented income to the gallery's shops and restaurants.

The three charging exhibitions, Fabric of Vision, Madame de Pompadour and, most significantly, Titian, together earned £2.3m including sponsorship, but management stressed how impossible it was to guarantee sponsorship and other income generation.

Mr Scott called on the Government to take responsibility for the steady erosion in funding that meant its annual grant-in-aid now paid for only 80 to 90 per cent of the running costs. "There is a danger that institutions like us are expected to be a bit too commercial in order to bridge a gap that perhaps ought to be bridged in other ways. We cannot expect to go on providing the services we're providing if the capital income is going to be constrained in the way I have indicated."

Dr Saumarez Smith also stressed the enormous problems the gallery faced in trying to buy works of art. About £9m had been raised by the gallery itself to buy the Madonna of the Pinks, but it would be "highly problematic" if another masterpiece came on the market in the coming year. The gallery had "exhausted the goodwill" of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which has given £11m to the Raphael.

His chairman also suggested it was unacceptable for the National Gallery to be dependent upon the HLF for acquisitions, particularly when the HLF had, in any case, indicated a move from saving works of art to other heritage causes. "This raises a fundamental question: to whom should trustees turn for help in discharging their responsibility for great national institutions like the National Gallery?" Mr Scott said. But a spokesman for the Department for Culture said the National Gallery was a well-funded organisation able to raise substantial funding from sources other than government grants.

It got real increases in support amounting to 1.5 per cent for 2004-05 and 2.5 per cent the year after. Because of tax changes, it could recover VAT worth an extra £1m a year. It had £27m of acquisitions through the acceptance-in-lieu- of-taxes scheme and £8.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to buy George Stubbs' Whistlejacket in 1997.