March 6 2019

Image of Rent-a-Rembrant!

Picture: English Heritage

In the FT, James Pickford has news of a rather alarming new policy for English Heritage. They've agreed to lend the celebrated Rembrandt self-portrait from Kenwood House to an exhibition at Larry Gagosian's gallery in London. I've no problem with public institutions lending pictures to commercial galleries, indeed I've been involved with such shows before when I used to work for Philip Mould. Ultimately, both dealers and museums are interested in the same thing; getting people to look at art.

But there has always been an understanding that such shows would not be selling exhibitions. The Gagosian show, however, will have works for sale, including new works by Jenny Saville, Richard Prince, and Albert Oehlen. (The Saville portrait will be commissioned directly in response to the Rembrandt.) These artists are all multi-million dollar selling artists. And what is English Heritage getting in return for being such an integral aspect of Gagosian's shop window? £30,000 towards the repair of the painting's frame. That'll be a snip for Gagosian to pay.

English Heritage are making a big noise about the reduction in their public subsidy, and the fact that they are meant to be self-funding by 2023 (although they're more reticent about the one-off payment of £85m they recieved in 2013 to help manage the new policy). So they claim that this is an example of 'a new model'. From the FT:

Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage, said: “This sort of partnership, the first of the kind we’ve done, shines a light on the collection. It’s a way of reminding people of this great asset we have and I hope will lead to other things which will enable us to take care of Kenwood in the long term.”

But if this is a new model, then English Heritage are selling themselves cheap. The Kenwood Rembrandt is one of the best known paintings in the world. To lend it to a commercial gallery, which will be selling paintings in the same show for millions of pounds, for over a month, for just £30,000 is hopelessly naive. Don't you think? 

But it's probably typical of the sort of bad decision we can come to expect from English Heritage. Recently, we asked if we could film a scene for Britain's Lost Masterpieces at Apsley House in London, which is run by English Heritage. The fee quoted was £1,000 for an hour, in addition to an unspecified additional bill to cover things like staff costs on the day. While we're always happy to pay a fee to cover costs, we simply don't have the budget to pay that kind of money. In vain did we try to point out that the exposure might be good for Apsley House, which is one of the jewels of London, but which few people know about (mainly because English Heritage are no good at marketing it). But I got the impression they're not that interested in visitors. Opening times for Apsley House have now been reduced to weekends in the winter. Which is odd for a central London site, with an amazing history and collection. English Heritage's response was that it costs them so much money to keep Apsley House open that they have to charge such high fees. But when I asked (under the Freedom of Information Act) to know how much their annual costs and revenues were for Apsley House, they refused, saying it was 'commercially sensitive information'. I've never encoutered that response from a public institution before - there is simply no way that the running costs for a public asset like Apsley House can be regarded as 'commercially sensitive'. I'm appealing the ruling. Often, if an institution is reluctant to tell you something, it's because they're telling porkies.

Update - a reader writes:

It is quite possible that Gagosian is paying more to transport, guard, and insure the Kenwood Rembrandt Self Portrait for a month than he is paying English Heritage to rent it.

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