Great works of art like Van Dyck's belong in public galleries, not the living rooms of billionaires

The power of art to change society is well-known, so why do we let private collectors hide some of the best works from view?

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For decades, viewers have found themselves lost in the cadmium yellows and blood red canvases of Mark Rothko. Likewise, the last ghastly breath taken by Ophelia in Sir John Everett Millais’ painting continues to pierce us.

One thing is clear: great works of art are affective. Although they can do more than just stir our feelings. As they grab hold of us, they can teach us about the world and ourselves. But what if we had never seen them?

Yesterday it was announced that The National Gallery will be able to keep Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s 1641 final self-portrait, after hitting its £10m fundraising target.

The work was going to be bought by the billionaire art collector James Stunt, the son-in-law of F1’s Bernie Ecclestone. But he withdrew his claim after seeing “the people’s passion” for the painting (although an export ban had also banned it from leaving the UK). 

In the end, the Flemish painter, who gazes mysteriously over his right shoulder, will continue to captivate museum-going viewers.

But there are still plenty of great works out there that aren’t available to the public, or are in the wrong hands. When Steve Wynn famously put his elbow through Picasso’s 1932 painting "Le Rêve", we were all left wondering: can casino magnates and hedge fund managers be trusted with the most important works of the Western art historical canon? And if these cherished works are being left in private hands, for whom do they really exist?

Although some collectors showcase their prized possessions, quantity often trumps quality. Works by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are represented in excess, and become blunt symbols of an economy driven by shock value and a more-is-more philosophy.

But even in an age of multi-million dollar auctions and celebrity gallerists, not all hope is lost.

In 2012, The National Gallery partnered with National Galleries of Scotland to successfully recover "Diana and Callisto" by Italian Renaissance heavyweight Titian. They were then able to exhibit it with companion piece "Diana and Actaeon", which had also been reclaimed from the Duke of Sutherland in 2009.

At the same time, major public galleries such as The Museum of Modern Art, New York hold 80 per cent of their collection in storage, achieving little – if any – public face time. But the chances for public viewing are still much greater in this case. Works also stand a better chance at longevity when they are properly kept and managed by conservation staff, away from all the Steve Wynns of the world.

However, it’s not just a simple case of public versus private. The National Gallery’s success in keeping Van Dyck’s masterpiece marks a victory for universal access, but another question still looms: why this work and not another?

The present state of the art market has driven up prices beyond imagination, and museums are forced to play the game. Perhaps some of these fundraising initiatives should support education, outreach programs, and the acquisition of works by artists from non-dominant communities who remain grossly underrepresented in major museum collections.

It’s time we looked beyond the confines of the Western Canon and demand that other great but otherwise overlooked works be purchased, or unearthed from an invisible archive.