With slashed funding, British museums turn to philanthropy

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With slashed funding, British museums turn to philanthropy
A new gallery devoted to pictures of women and self-portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, June 20, 2023. Britain’s National Portrait Gallery reopened Thursday after a three-year, $53-million renovation — raising the money in the current climate was tough. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

LONDON.- On a recent tour of London’s National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, the museum’s director, pointed out some of the major British figures from history and pop culture whose likenesses lined the walls: Shakespeare, King Henry VIII, Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

In between showing off the portraits, he pointed out some less familiar members of British high society.

On plaques and painted onto walls were the names of donors who had paid for much of the recent three-year, $53 million renovation of his institution.

As of Thursday, when the museum reopened to the public, visitors enter the National Portrait Gallery via the Ross Courtyard, named after a retail magnate who donated more than $5 million for the refurbishment. One floor is now called the Blavatnik Wing, after a Ukrainian-born business owner who gave the museum nearly $13 million. The site’s three new classrooms, designed for school visits, are also named for donors.

“The funding model for British museums is changing,” Cullinan said. “We’re definitely having to become a lot better at fundraising.”

Until recently, when major British museums planned significant work, their first port of call was often national or local government. In 2007, for example, Britain’s Treasury gave 50 million pounds, around $100 million at the time, toward an extension of Tate Modern.

Now, such offers are harder to come by. Last year, the government slashed arts funding for many institutions in London, and, with inflation soaring, museums across the country are becoming increasingly reliant on philanthropy to cover day-to-day running costs, let alone major projects. (Britain’s National Lottery Heritage Fund — a public body funded by gambling receipts — awarded the National Portrait Gallery almost 10 million pounds for its renovation, but the government did not contribute directly.)

Leslie Ramos, the author of a forthcoming book on arts giving, said that Britain “just doesn’t have the culture of philanthropy like the U.S., especially for the arts.” Several major patrons died recently, she added, and younger donors were not filling the gap. They prefer to donate to social justice causes, or organizations fighting climate change, she said.

Paul Ramsbottom, the CEO of the Wolfson Foundation, one of Britain’s largest institutional arts donors, which gave around $630,000 toward the National Portrait Gallery renovation, said that funds like his were seeing a “rising tide” of applications that they couldn’t possibly satisfy.

This increasing reliance on donors comes as several major British museums embark on multiyear overhauls. The British Museum is expected to soon announce a renovation that The Financial Times has reported will cost 1 billion pounds, around $1.3 billion. The National Gallery has also been trying to raise 95 million pounds for a refurbishment. In May, Anh Nguyen, the museum’s director of development, told an audience of donors and reporters that trying to secure the money had given her “sleepless nights” and “heart palpitations.”

Cullinan, the National Portrait Gallery director, said the key to grabbing donors’ attention was having a compelling project. Before the renovation, the National Portrait Gallery — founded in 1856 with the idea of displaying portraits of the most eminent people in Britain — was a much-loved institution, he said, but it had obvious room for improvement. Visitors could easily miss its former entrance, a small doorway on a busy street. Inside, he added, the museum’s corridors often felt like a rabbit warren and some of its displays “hadn’t been touched for 30 years.” Its only educational space was “in a dingy basement,” he added.

Its displays were not representative of contemporary Britain, Cullinan said: Just 3% of portraits on the walls were of people of color. (After the refurbishment, that has increased to 11%.)

The museum’s 13-strong fundraising team told donors they wanted to achieve a “complete transformation” of its building, its collection and educational programs, Cullinan said.

Although the National Portrait Gallery soon secured large grants from several donors, including some from the United States, it also had setbacks. In 2019, the museum turned down a $1.3 million donation from the Sackler family’s charitable arm. Members of the family owned Purdue Pharma, the company that made OxyContin, a drug that was blamed for a tide of deaths and addiction as part of the opioid crisis in the United States.

Ramos, the fundraising expert, said the furor around the Sacklers had an immediate affect on philanthropy: Some donors feared they could one day be caught in a public backlash because of the source of their wealth, and museums had increased scrutiny of donations. But Cullinan said his museum’s decision to turn down the Sacklers offer turned out to have a positive impact: “People donated more than a million pounds on the back of that, because they admired the position taken,” he said. (He declined to name those donors.)

Although the National Portrait Gallery eventually raised enough for the renovation, it has struggled in other fundraising drives. Over the past year, it tried to secure another 50 million pounds to buy Joshua Reynolds’ “Portrait of Mai (Omai).” The work, painted around 1776, depicts a Polynesian man, wearing flowing white robes, who became a society figure during a visit to London. It is widely considered one of the most important portraits of a person of color in British art history.

Sarah Hilliam, the National Portrait Gallery’s director of development, recalled that she showed the painting to around 40 potential donors while the museum was trying to acquire it, and several told her it was “the worst time to be taking on an acquisition like this,” since the museum renovation was underway.

In the end, the museum reached an unusual deal with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to jointly buy the portrait. Hilliam said that under the terms of the agreement, “Portrait of Mai (Omai)” will spend three years in London before heading to Los Angeles for a similar period. The trans-Atlantic collaboration was “hopefully a good blueprint” for other museums struggling to buy masterpieces, Hilliam added.

None of the museum insiders interviewed for this article said there were obvious ways to make fundraising in Britain easier. Nguyen, of the National Gallery, said that more generous tax breaks for donors, similar to those in the United States, would help. But, she added, more financial support from government “would be welcomed,” too.

Ramsbottom, of the Wolfson Foundation, said “it would be useful to have a public debate” about levels of giving, especially since he said studies showed Britain’s wealthiest people were not increasing donations in line with their booming incomes. But, he added, many in Britain simply believe that the government should pay for the country’s cultural life.

For now, Ramsbottom said, museums were caught in a “perfect storm” of rising costs and increased competition for patrons. The National Portrait Gallery’s renovation was “a revelation,” he added, but the wider situation was “a real worry for the sector, and for heritage in the U.K.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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