When treasure becomes a burden

Our greatest galleries will lose their place on the international stage unless they defy the wishes of their biggest benefactors, argues David Lister
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The Independent Online
Can philanthropy be bad for the nation's cultural health? Does it profit the arts if our most celebrated benefactors are also control freaks?

This spring the director of the fabulous Glasgow Burrell collection, Julian Spalding, will use more diplomatic language when he appears before a parliamentary commission to defend himself against the charge of breaching the will of Sir William Burrell, the Glasgow shipping magnate and art collector. But privately he will probably be thinking that the ego of Sir William, who died in 1958, reaches beyond the grave.

Its reach is not so long as that of Lady Wallace, whose dying wishes over her London collection of paintings, furniture and porcelain, bequeathed to the nation 100 years ago, have negative effects on exhibitions being held today.

The Wallace, the Tate, the Walker in Liverpool and galleries up and down the country will have their gaze on Glasgow as the Burrell issue threatens to engulf the art world. Mr Spalding, the head of Glasgow's museums, has pledged to make a dramatic change to the Burrell, the city's one internationally famous museum - now housed in a new pounds 20m building in 300 acres of parkland - with its display of 8,000 items including antiquities, jades, bronzes, medieval tapestries, Cezannes and Rembrandts.

Mr Spalding has decided to go against the strict terms of Sir William's 1944 bequest, which included a codicil that the lending of his collection should be restricted to major institutions in Britain, and nothing should go abroad. Mr Spalding, backed by the city council, wants to alter the terms, which requires an Act of Parliament.

It is necessary, he says, because the competition for top art exhibitions is now so intense that a gallery can hope to attract loans from abroad only if it can return the favour from time to time. If Glasgow does not share the Burrell treasures with the world, the world may just stop sharing its treasures with Glasgow. "We borrow from the great museums of the world," he explains, "and they want something back."

He is also quick to point out the illogicality of Sir William's decrees, made during the Second World War when travel was hazardous. Mr Spalding says pungently: "I can put a Burrell item on a plane in Glasgow and fly to London, but I cannot fly it to France or New York because that would mean travelling over water ... Sir William certainly wanted his collection to be lent, but only in Britain, because as a ship-owner, he did not trust ships. He could not have predicted the safety of air travel, which now enables all the great museums of the world to lend freely to each other ... He originally willed that his collections should be housed 16 miles from the city, because it was so polluted. He could not have predicted the effects of the Clean Air Act, which in fact allowed the Burrell Gallery to be built in Glasgow itself."

The Glasgow press has called Mr Spalding the sort of names it usually reserves for English soccer fans, and the trustees have dissociated themselves from Spalding and called in the parliamentary commissioners.

In the background is a period of savage council cuts which have led to redundancies among museum staff and mutterings about Mr Spalding failing to replace key posts, including the keeper of the Burrell collection itself.

But the central issue, which could affect all museums and galleries, is whether it is incumbent upon a museum's trustees and director to honour strictly and in perpetuity the terms of a bequest. Is it both illegal and immoral to flout the instructions in a benefactor's will? And does it make any long-term practical sense? Might it mean that bequests to British galleries will dry up, if benefactors fear that their dying wishes will be overturned.

Conversely, does it make any sense to abide by every dot and comma of a bequest when conservation arrangements, and funding, can change beyond recognition over the decades and even centuries since the original bequests were made?

So far Mr Spalding has failed to find an ally. Magnus Linklater, former editor of The Scotsman, says: "A trust is being broken and if it can be done once, it will be done again. The time has come for the art world south as well as north of the Border to take an interest, because the principle involved is universal."

But principles and art bequests are rather more confused than Mr Spalding's detractors would have us believe. Take the case of Sir Denis Mahon, the distinguished octogenarian art collector, who has announced to universal acclaim that he is leaving his collection of Italian Baroque paintings to the National Gallery and other museums with the stated condition that the paintings be withdrawn if the Government cuts funding to those galleries, or they charge for admission.

Well, it sounded good. But within days the Government did indeed cut the National Gallery's funding, in last autumn's Budget. Having painted himself into a corner, Sir Denis took evasive action, saying he would wait and see how the situation developed. He was not so understanding towards the Walker Art Gallery, whose trustees have decided to make admission charges.

Sir Denis has withdrawn his three Old Master paintings from the Walker. Richard Foster, the gallery's director, points out not only that the charges were inevitable after government cutbacks, but that the pounds 3 ticket would give admission for a year to the Walker, and six other galleries. Three pounds, less than the price of parking near the free National Gallery, does not seem Draconian, and, as Mr Foster goes on to say, the losers from Sir Denis's withdrawal of his gift are not the Government, but the schoolchildren of Liverpool.

According to one gallery director, Sir Denis is merely an extreme example of many who leave an art bequest. "It's rarely simple philanthropy. They want their name to live on, and to control the bequest after their death. In Sir Denis's case, he wants to control national policy after his death."

But linking a bequest to a political condition about funding or charging in the Nineties is as fraught as making conditions for all time about travel based on the safety and technology available in the Forties.

The National Lottery is changing the funding equation. Formerly only able to give money to new buildings, the lottery is now rapidly being overhauled to be able to fund artists themselves, new commissions, educational schemes. If that trend continues, will one in years to come be able to make such a strong case against cuts in annual revenue funding by government?

As for charging, what if museums decide to charge tourists but exempt local people? Would that be so wrong? Take one of the most famous bequests in this country - Michelangelo's Tondo in the Royal Academy, one of only four sculptures by Michelangelo outside Italy. Yet even if you go to the Royal Academy you are likely to miss it. The Royal Academy's magazine says in its latest issue: "The Tondo is now well protected behind bullet- proof glass, but its colour and the harsh lighting have flattened the carving's appearance, detracting considerably from its artistic impact."

That's quite an admission for the institution itself to make. The 19th- century collector and amateur artist George Beaumont wanted all artists "to have free access to it". His wish has been granted. But in 1827, the year Beaumont died, bullet-proof glass did not exist. It is arguable that encasing the Tondo in glass which distorts its appearance achieves little. But the point remains that the man making the bequest could not have foreseen that art treasures could become targets for terrorists or vandals, could not have anticipated bullet-proof glass, and, had he done so, might not have insisted that the work be accessible to artists at all times.

The Wallace Collection, which includes the Laughing Cavalier by Franz Hals, is also tied to the restrictive wishes of its benefactor. Lady Wallace 100 years ago decreed: "The collection must be kept together Unmixd with other works of art."

Ros Saville, director of the Wallace, admits that there were discussions about "reconsidering" the deeds of trust, but it was decided it would not be appropriate. Many of the porcelain works are fragile; travel for people is easier than for works of art, so people should come to the Wallace rather than the Wallace go to the people.

But she admits that sometimes it can be heartbreaking. Last year the National Gallery had an exhibition of Rubens landscapes and, in her words, "it would have been magic to lend Rubens' Rainbow landscape whose pair was in the exhibition. But the excitement of the possibilities were outweighed by the morality of going against the terms of the bequest. It is the thin end of the wedge. If the roof blew off, you would be tempted to sell something."

Selling off items in a bequest is, everyone seems to agree, beyond the moral pale. But should there be such a moral imperative to abide by terms of a bequest in relation to loans and methods of display? Did Sir William Burrell on his deathbed in the late Fifties imagine that 40 years later artworks could go by train all the way to the Louvre?

Timothy Mason, director of the Museums and Galleries Commission, does not rule out questioning the terms of a bequest when changing circumstances make it plausible. "It should be a matter of common sense," he says. But one gallery director's common sense is another's outrage.

Much better if art collectors generous enough to enrich the nation's heritage do so in a true spirit of philanthropy, without attempting to be a curator in a time machine, tying future generations to conditions that future centuries viewing art on the Internet may find laughable.