lost masterpieces BBC
How the abolition of museum import costs could stimulate the public New research shows that image licenses are hardly profitable for some British museums
I am on my way to prepare for another series of Great Britain lost masterpieces for the BBC. This is the fun part; museum stores are mine to play in, and at National Trust houses I can open any door I want…..
But every visit reminds me how different a painting can look in the flesh, compared to his photo. Pictures that I have been enthusiastic about can actually disappoint immediately. But fortunately there are always other interesting photos to make up for – and if that does not work, there is always a tea room.
The campaign to abolish museum imaging costs in the UK had to make a promising step forward last month. Thanks to the support of the independent Lord Lord Freyberg, we had met with a minister of art, John Glen MP, to discuss the problem. Prior to the meeting, we met our strategy and made an indisputable briefing document that we had to include in the minister’s “red box” (an official government bag, made after a design that was unchanged since the 1860s).
We then heard that another supportive MP, conservative Robert Jenrick, would accompany us. It looked good. If we could persuade the minister to at least show interest in the campaign, museums would take the issue more seriously.
But the night before our meeting Glen got a new job, as part of Theresa May’s not entirely successful “realignment” of the government. Now there is a new minister of art, Michael Ellis MP. He needs time to get to know his new role, but we hope to be able to start a meeting soon. We just have to hope that he stays in office long enough – Ellis is the third Minister of Art in 18 months. The good news is that Robert Jenrick also got a new job, in the very important Treasury. We hope he is a useful ally.
Yet we have uncovered some important facts when preparing the meeting (god bless the Freedom of Information Act). The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) achieved a net profit of only £ 114,000 in 2017, or 0.57% of the total income of the gallery. In comparison, the Learning department of the NPG spent more than £ 2 million on “promoting access to and understanding of collections for a wide audience”. So while a department does its best to restrict the understanding of the NPG collection, another promotes it courageously. What does it take for institutions to ensure that the best and cheapest way to increase access to their collections enables the free movement of images? But for too many directors, the core issue is the only thing that counts.
There was a surprising recognition from the Tate: it does not know whether its image-licensing actually yields a profit. In 2016/17, the institution generated a gross income of £ 383,000 from visual allowances. But the Tate says it is not able to calculate the associated costs and can not give me a net figure. I honestly do not believe this; I suspect the answer is too embarrassing. But we can probably assume that the licensing fees of the Tate are no less than the NPGs, which last year were £ 245,000 (of which £ 191,000 are salaries – selling images requires a lot of staff). If that is the case, the income from visual allowances would be less than 0.2% of the total income. Why bother?
Another ‘live’ campaign in the United Kingdom concerns trade in antique ivory; the government wants to ban it. I have not been involved in the campaign, but the consequences of a possible ban are already being felt. I was recently asked to appreciate a collection of British portrait miniatures that were invariably painted on Indian ivory from the end of the 17th century. I had to break through the disappointing news that the prices had gone through the floor.