Tate chief sounds alarm on saving historic art

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Millions of pounds are being spent on saving historic art for the nation to the detriment of buying contemporary works, Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, has warned.

The crisis in acquisitions budgets had forced museums and galleries into an "almost entirely reactive" position. Instead of filling holes in national collections, they were constantly trying to save items at risk of being lost overseas.

"The appearance of works on the market is governed by death, divorce and financial crisis," Sir Nicholas told a conference in London organised by the National Art Collections Fund charity. Very little forward planning is possible and even the best-conceived strategic plan for building collections can be knocked sideways by the sudden need to react to yet another 'loss'."

British galleries now rarely bought works illustrating European or world cultural achievement. They also struggled to find the money for modern art. The opening of Tate Modern in London high-lighted how even Britain's flagship gallery was deficient in works by important figures of the 20th century.

The effect of rules governing exports was to give priority to art with strong British ties or origins. More than £60m in 14 substantial grants in recent years had been used to "save" items already in Britain.

"I do wonder whether, as a nation, we care too much about what happens to be here as a result of history," he added. "I worry even more that we care too much for the past and not enough for the present and near present."

Nevertheless, Sir Nicholas defended the National Gallery's attempt to buy Raphael's Madonna of the Pinksto stop it being exported.