Bendor Grosvenor has an important piece in the Financial Times that goes far beyond its specific subject, David Cannadine’s report on the crisis in British museum collecting. Grosvenor picks apart the institutional sclerosis that makes museums poor collectors but exemplary stewards.
Buying an artwork requires institutional energy, which not all museums possess. Museums are one of the last unreformed public services in Britain, where almost everything is decided by committee, and decisions can take an age, if they are taken at all. A few years ago I sold a portrait to a national museum for what should have been an easily digestible £8,000. But the process took more than six months (which is fairly standard). I wouldn’t be surprised if the museum spent more on staff time than on the picture.
Grosvenor’s argument goes on to suggest that museums do best when they partner with private collectors who can loan works either long-term or for exhibitions. He’s not naive. He understands the popular suspicion of lenders who might be trying to enhance the stature of their works. (Caveat collector!)
Those fears are overblown, Grosvenor says. And the best hope for re-invigorated museums is engaging with collectors. That’s a lesson that will become increasingly important as the number of private museums and collections grow.