What a gift to gie us
The £100m donation of the d'Offay collection is the greatest coup the visual arts in Scotland has ever seen, argues Moira Jeffrey
WHAT does a very rich man look like when he is about to lose a significant proportion of his millions? In the case of Sir Paul McCartney, the answer is: rather tired and tense. But last week we learned it need not be thus. It is possible to smile when you are handing over the cash. The art dealer Anthony d'Offay, whose habitual countenance might be described as self-contained, was positively beaming for the cameras when it was announced that his private collection of modern and contemporary art was to be acquired by the
National Galleries of Scotland and Tate, for 28m (with 26.5m to d'Offay himself), just a fraction of its market value at 125m.
If d'Offay has his own complex reasons to smile at giving away the bulk of his fortune, now the initial excitement is dying down, do we? Absolutely. The maths looks great: 10m each from the Scottish and British governments, and the balance met by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund charity really is the merest snip.
We needn't congratulate a very rich man merely for being rich, nor ignore the fact that his ascendancy as a collector coincided with that of his astute dealership. But we should be immensely grateful that his vision and that of his partners at the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate has turned out to be extremely acute. The Artist Rooms concept they have devised means that the works will not be chained down to a landmark building but seen in galleries across the country where far more people, particularly the young, will get to see them.
Ignore bleating voices about Scotland coming off second best. That the collection should be jointly acquired and managed by the two institutions and jointly supported by the Scottish and British governments is an optimistic sign that collaboration rather than competition is the way ahead for cultural institutions. That works from the collection are to be seen across the country from Stromness in Orkney to Bexhill in Sussex is more important by far. Any institution with climate control, adequate security and sufficient audacity will be hoping to join the current list of partners who include Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen.
The strategy avoids what would have been a costly white elephant in Scotland, the proposal to turn the former VA Tech factory or "Blue Shed" in Leith into a museum. The building would have consumed too much money in the conversion and fractured even further the NGS which is already thinly spread across a number of venues. And d'Offay rejected a US-style foundation where private collections retreat into their own little climate-controlled universes, too distant and cathedral like for broader audiences.
There will be a certain sense of relief in the Scottish art world where concerns had been raised that the pressure of working towards a deal was consuming the NGS. Philanthropy is a game of power as well as generosity. The dance of courtship between private collectors, patrons and public institutions is a complex, necessary but at times rather undignified one. When the Playfair project was unveiled and when Sir Timothy Clifford retired as director of the National Galleries of Scotland, we were treated to an endless parade of partying, plaque unveiling and self-congratulation to please the suits and pacify the gentry.
The acquisition of the d'Offay collection is the greatest coup the visual arts in Scotland has seen, but the rather sober nature of this announcement, with its emphasis on young people, education and, heaven forfend, the actual art work itself comes as a welcome note that the stewardship of Clifford's successor John Leighton at NGS is of a different tone altogether. It recognises that the duties of public collections lie beyond bricks and mortar, beyond our capital cities and above all that the constant renewal of our history, including our recent history, is vital to our understanding of our culture.
What will the Artist Rooms collection look like in a 100 years? Like all collections, some works will wither on the vine. I do hope that the Ron Mueck sculptures spend more time in storage than cluttering up our public spaces. I'd be happy for the public never to see a Bill Viola again. Some of the less celebrated artists will reward close attention.
Others, including the Warhols and the Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus photographs, will reveal very important things about the 20th century. What counts about the best of these artworks is not the big bucks they are worth but that they will tell future generations the tale of our own times. A reason to smile indeed.v
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Northern Ballet Theatre bring Shakespeare up to date by setting his magical comedy in a sleeper train travelling from London to Edinburgh. With monochrome sets and choreography from David Nixon, set to music by Mendelssohn and Brahms.
Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-529 6000), Wednesday-Saturday, 7.30pm (Thursday and Saturday matinee at 2.30pm)
Highlights from this, the festival's third year include appearances from Sir Menzies Campbell, Asne Seierstad, Hollywood actress Kathleen Turner and Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson.
Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Friday until March 15. For a full programme visit www.ayewrite.com
Rapture Theatre's production of Irish playwright Conor McPherson's eerie urban ghost story, right, which focuses on the turmoil of a disillusioned priest who hangs up his collar to become a therapist. (Ages 14+)
Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock (0141-577 4970), Tuesday, 7.30pm; Byre Theatre, St Andrews (01334 475 000), Wednesday and Thursday, 7.30pm; Perth Theatre (0845 612 6320), Friday and Saturday, 7.45pm
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