Philip Hensher: One small step towards a better policy on the arts

If we're going to have a lottery fund for acquisitions, let it be for acquisitions
Click to follow

Since the National Lottery began operation in 1997, 28 per cent of the prize fund has been earmarked for so-called "good causes". It's enabled an wide range of projects, and has, in particular, transformed the national life of museums and galleries. Many such projects, such as the transformation of the Bankside power station into Tate Modern, have been enormous successes.

Some concern has been voiced recently about the Government raiding the Lottery fund to pay for projects it was never intended to cover, and which ought to be funded from tax revenues or private enterprise. Certainly the founders of the lottery never anticipated it going in some of the directions the Government has found useful.

One of the firmly established principles at the start of the lottery was that the money was to be made available to museums for capital projects. There was no suggestion that money was going to be made available to fill the new buildings, and acquisitions budgets remained as they were or were even cut.

The results, in some cases, were curious phenomena. Some of the lottery-funded enterprises were no more than spectacular buildings, where, after their opening, it became clear that nobody really knew what they were there for or if there had ever been any demand for them. They existed more as an opportunity for architects to exercise their idle fantasy than for anything else.

The notorious case was the architecturally spectacular Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, which thoroughly failed to live up to any proposed purpose it might have had. Sheffield has mounted a massive popular musical renaissance in the last two or three years, with the Arctic Monkeys, the Long Blondes and others. But there is no doubt that the existence of a very lively, tatty old club, the Leadmill, contributed much more to this than the white elephant of the lottery-funded centre.

A very striking example of the imbalance came with the Walsall Art Gallery. It opened in 2000, and immediately won several awards for its architects, Caruso St John. It's a splendid building, no doubt, three-quarters funded by lottery money. But those of us who went up to cover its opening found ourselves writing, in the interests of politeness, almost entirely about the architecture. About the contents there was not much to say; the vulgar expression "Where's the bloody horse?" came to mind. It wasn't their fault; it was the product of an imbalance in funding, generous when it came to building projects, stingy when it came to everything else.

After a high degree of lobbying by museum chiefs and campaigners, the lottery fund has signalled a shift of policy. A new fund, amounting in the first instance to £3m, will be made available to museums for the purposes of acquisitions. Grants of between £50,000 and £200,000 will be provided. Charles Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Gallery, said it was "a big step in the right direction".

I don't think he could have said anything else, though £3m is really neither here nor there. The best that can be hoped for is that grants capped at £200,000 will encourage museums to explore individual enthusiasms, out of the eye of the fashionable marketplace. You couldn't buy most Lucian Freuds for that, but you could certainly buy a very important Michael Andrews.

A museum might be encouraged to explore the now very unfashionable kitchen-sink school of realists of the 1950s or, just plausibly, Australian impressionism, or something nobody else has noticed. That is what a good provincial museum ought to do. In 50 years' time, canny buying with relatively small sums might provide a collection like the great collection of pre-Raphaelites in Manchester, put together when such an idea seemed laughable.

It doesn't obviously seem like "a big step" to offer such small sums of money, but Saumarez Smith is quite right; it is a huge shift in principle, and a very welcome one. We probably won't notice its effect for some time - it wouldn't begin to touch celebrated cases such as the Raphael Madonna that the Northumberlands decided to sell, or the Earl of Halifax's Titian, shortly to come up for auction. But the principle, and a number of small, hopefully increasing grants, ought to make its mark.

What does, however, make the heart sink is the little detail that the fund, small as it is, is also intended "to help curatorial skills and research, and activities for the public". Everyone knows how fatuous outreach programmes are, and how training days can eat up substantial budgets with no discernible result. Important as curatorial research is, it deserves to be funded in a separate way. I foresee this tiny fund being swiftly eaten up by idiotic explanatory placards placed next to the ancient abstracts in the Piddletrenthide Municipal Art Gallery. No, no, no.

If we're going to have a lottery fund for acquisitions, let it be for acquisitions. If it's to be eaten away by management consultancy-type "activities for the public", or in other words paying harridans with clipboards to stand in the foyers of museums and ask impertinent questions of visitors about their racial origins and annual income, it is going to be too small to achieve anything much.

A museum ought to be able to say "Our activity for the public benefit this year is buying a terrific John Hoyland, and thanks very much for the money." £3m is ridiculously small. But - if it's devoted to acquisitions - it's a start