There's a bit of a kerfuffle going about the proposal for the National Galleries of Scotland to buy a couple of Titian paintings from the Duke of Sutherland for a cool £100 million in total. The paintings are apparently worth £300m and have been on loan from the Duke's family since 1947.
I'm currently listening to a discussion on Radio Five Live about whether public money should be used to fund their purchase. And as you would expect, people are queuing up to say that it shouldn't and that money should instead be spent on nurses/social workers/transport/other public works of the callers' choice.
I'm not so sure. I think a society which never spends anything on culture would be a much poorer one and I dislike the narrow utilitarianism which states that culture is automatically a less worthy cause than hospitals or roads.
The question for me is whether this proposed deal is good value for money. Certainly, on the face of it, acquiring assets worth £300m for a third of that does seem a generous offer, although it is worth noting that the valuation depends on the current boom in the art market being sustained. If the bottom falls out of the art market in a few years, the National Galleries could have ended up paying vastly over the odds.
And it's worth pointing out that the total £100m price tag for the two pictures is the cost of just one 92nd of an Olympic Games or about one 180th of the government's wretched £18 billion ID cards scheme. Nor is it likely that money would be diverted away from hospitals to pay for the pictures - the bulk of the sum would probably come from things like the lottery.
I should declare an interest: I'm a frequent visitor to the National Galleries. I know the paintings concerned and think they are among the greatest Renaissance paintings ever produced. I am therefore one of the people who would benefit if the pictures were retained in this country.
But I do have some concerns about the proposed deal. For a start, although I think that pictures like these should continue to be on public display, there is the obvious point that the UK does not have a divine right to have the pictures remain in this country. Would it really be so bad to have them go to a museum in Italy, Germany or the USA? And if it's argued that these two pictures are of such importance to our own culture that they should remain here, then why does exactly the same argument not apply to the Elgin Marbles? And if they are that important, should they be allowed to leave the country anyway? Should we not instead tighten up export controls, which in the UK are apparently much laxer than in several other European countries?
There is also the question of to what extent public funds should contribute to the deal. Although I do think that government funding has a role to play in funding culture and the arts, are the National Galleries expecting the public purse to pick up the whole £100m tab? And if not, what proportion are they expecting to get from public funds - 50m? 20m? 10m? What limit should be placed on public support for the purchase?
Ultimately, public bodies will have to decide what extent this is actually a good deal for them, or whether the money could be better spent elsewhere in the arts. I also think the National Galleries should be trying to raise as much of the £100m from private sources as possible and should also consider selling some of their surplus stock to fund the deal if it's thought necessary to keep the pictures. I suspect I might well contribute a small amount to such an appeal if asked.
Overall, I'd be quite happy for public money to contribute towards the purchase of these pictures if it's thought necessary to keep them in this country. I think the bulk of the funding should come from private sources. Arts bodies should not automatically expect that government will come to their aid, but should rely on their own initiative as much as possible. But we would all be poorer without some government support for culture. Culture does have its place in society, but that comes at a price.
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