Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

September 11 2018

Image of Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery

Regular readers will know that while I was delighted to see the National Gallery acquire a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, and have admired the way in which they have made the conservation of the picture so public, I was puzzled by the manner in which they bought the picture, and the price they paid. The picture came up for auction in Paris on 19th December 2017 with an estimate of €300,000-€400,000, and sold for €2.3m. The picture was bought by dealers, and the National Gallery acquired it soone afterwards for £3.6m, a price increase of £1.6m from the auction. The self-portrait is close in composition and date to another example that came up for sale recently at Christie’s in New York with an estimate of $3m-$5m - but didn’t sell - and which was subsequently acquired after the auction by the Wadsworth Atheneum.

We are always hearing how hard up UK museums are. So why pay the big mark up? In a statement to AHN, the National Gallery said they were “not given notice of the painting's appearance at auction in Paris, so we were only able to consider its acquisition once it had been purchased there by dealers.” In an earlier post, I set out that the National Gallery, had they been monitoring the auction scene and art history blogs, had fully a month to consider the acquisition before the sale, and that the picture was not subject to any French export bar. The fact that they seem to have missed the picture’s sale in Paris is all the more surprising given the emphasis they placed, after the acquisition, on how securing paintings by female artists has been a priority, and that the acquisition of the Self-Portrait was a realisation of a ‘long held dream’. We are also often told that major museums need time to buy artworks at auction, because the fundraising is so difficult. And yet, in this case, the great majority of the National Gallery’s funding to buy the picture came from what are effectively its own reserves. I’m not saying the National Gallery would have been able to buy the picture for less in France. But I do think it’s right to ask whether they have acted in the most efficient manner. You may say; ‘they have the picture, and that’s all that matters’. But in an age of declining attendances and more difficult fundraising, it’s vital that publicly owned and funded museums are able to demonstrate that they are doing everything they can to preserve public trust, and money. A fraction of that £1.6m would pay for a dedicated staff member to monitor all auction sales, and help keep the Gallery alert for potential acquisitions in the future. 

To try and find out more about why the National Gallery felt it appropriate to pay £1.6m more for a painting only months after it was sold, I asked the Gallery for any correspondence relevant to deciding on the acquisition under the Freedom of Information Act. In the UK, all public authorities are expected to be transparent and open in how they operate, and the Act allows the public a ‘right of access’ to information held by those bodies, at any time. The Act has been in effect since 2000. Under the Act, public bodies are allowed to invoke a range of exemptions to withhold information, if they think, for example, that things like security arrangements or personal information should not be made public. For some years, I used to be a government adviser on public archives, and so am quite familiar with how the Act works, or at least how it should work.

Yesterday, I received the National Gallery’s response to my request. It came in form of a PDF, many pages long, most of which looks like the above photo. There are a great deal of redactions, and not much of any real use remains to be seen. There's some information about arranging IR and X-ray photos when the picture came in, a little about general fundraising, but that’s about it. I have been unable to find out when the National Gallery first became aware of the painting, how they went about valuing it, the extent to which they negotiated the price down, if they did, and so on. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find out much. But I think the reasons for the National Gallery withholding so much information are what’s really interesting here. And so, below, I will quote from,and comment on, their reasoning.

First, a number of emails were exempted for security grounds, which is fine. It’s quite right that information about how valuable paintings enter the National Gallery is not released. But other exemptions used to withhold information are perhaps more ambiguous. Here’s their comment on documents specifically relating to the commercial element of the acquisition:

Section 43(2)

Release of some of the information would prejudice the commercial interests of the National Gallery. This information includes how we assess the merits of a painting considered for the national collection, how we seek funding for acquisitions, and how we negotiate with vendors. I have therefore concluded that a section 43(2) exemption is engaged. Section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act states that “information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it)”. The National Gallery believes that disclosure of this information would prejudice our own commercial interests. In reaching this decision, particular consideration has been given to the likelihood of the National Gallery engaging in similar activities in the future. The Gallery is also mindful of the need to build relationships of trust with vendors and funders. Whilst we must not hide from public scrutiny, our ability to deal advantageously and in the public interest with vendors and funders would be damaged by the release of information.

Critics of the purchase price would probably point out that in this case, they have not dealt advantageously in the public interest.

More substantively, the Gallery said that releasing many of the emails would have a detrimental impact on staff and their ability to operate:

As a public authority we recognise our duty to balance the need for openness with the requirement to keep information private where it is in the public interest to do so. Having considered your request, we believe that a section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) exemption is engaged. Section 36 states that information is exempt information if “disclosure of the information under [the] Act would, or would be likely to, inhibit – (i) the free and frank provision of advice or (ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation”.

The information which has been withheld relates to the provision of advice and discussion, for the purposes of deliberation and the drafting of documentation, regarding the decision to acquire the painting, undertake due diligence, produce legal agreements and other documentation, provide a valuation of the painting, seek and discuss expert third-party advice, seek external funding for the acquisition, consider future conservation treatment and outreach activities.

Much of this is understandable. But I think we can see just how broad the National Gallery’s refusal to disclose information is, when they mention things like conservation treatment. I can’t immediately see why the conservation treatment on a publicly owned painting needs to be kept secret, especially when the Gallery is usually commendably open about such things. 

They go on:

The issue referred to is still ‘live’ in so far as the acquisition of the painting continues to be of interest to third party individuals. […]

As this is a live issue, there remains the need for the Gallery’s staff to have a ‘safe space’ in which to exchange views and opinions.

The issue is also live in so far as the Gallery will engage in future activities of a very similar nature as it continues to acquire paintings and seek funding.

Connoisseurship – as used to judge a painting – is subjective and requires careful thought and discussion. It is important to maintain a safe-space for such deliberations to take place.

This last point is interesting. Presumably, since the painting is now in the National Gallery’s collection, Gallery staff thought it was a good painting. Some might see it as surprising that discussions about the quality and authorship of a painting need to be kept secret - especially since the Act allows the redaction of names from documents, but not the actual text. Therefore, it would be possible to see correspondence that ‘X’ thought this painting was or was not by Gentileschi, and so on. The argument might be different if a picture from another gallery or owner was under discussion, because then there would be other reasons to withhold that information. But this is the National Gallery discussing the public’s painting - are we not able to know what they think?  

The National Gallery’s email to me went on to further expand on this point, however, and deployed a couple of what I think are revealing phrases:

We believe that disclosure of this information would inhibit the frank provision of advice and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation and decision making. It is important that the Gallery’s officers are able to carry out their work free from external interference in order to make the best possible decisions on complex subjects such as this. In order for a section 36 exemption to be engaged, a qualified person must give their reasonable opinion that that is the case. I can confirm that the National Gallery’s qualified person, the Director, has given their opinion that the exemption is engaged.

As a public authority we have a duty to balance the need for openness with considerations of the public interest in maintaining this exemption. However, we do not believe that it is in the public interest to inhibit the provision of advice or the exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation and decision making. We have concluded that releasing the information requested would have a ‘chilling effect’ on members of Gallery staff, thus hindering their work and putting at risk the decision making process. We therefore consider that the public interest is better served by the use of the exemption detailed above to prevent the release of this information. In reaching this decision I have also been mindful of the fact that the outcomes of the deliberations have either been released or published, for example the purchase price and sources of funding. In this way, the Gallery has sought to ensure openness in relation to the acquisition.

This last sentence suggests we are supposed to applaud the Gallery for making public the £3.6m figure in the first place. But while I do agree with the general thrust of the statement above - that Gallery staff should feel at liberty to give free and frank advice to their colleagues - we do need to remember above all that this is a public institution. It receives substantial public funding. The Gallery's artworks belong to the public, as does its site. It is our collection. The staff work for us. They are accountable to us. They know this when they take the job. If, when contemplating a course of action they think, 'this would look bad if it ever became public', then it's probably not a good idea to do it. Characterising legitimate public interest in how the Gallery operates as ‘external interference’ is, I think, quite shocking. Public scrutiny is not ‘interference’. It’s the only way we can be sure that public institutions are acting in our interest. Going so far as to claim such scrutiny will have a 'chilling effect' on Gallery staff reveals, I think, what they think of that scrutiny. 

And here we get to the heart of the matter. There is a growing disconnect between some of our national museums and the public they serve. I’ve described before what I call the 'Gollum syndrome' when it comes to museums; it’s their ‘precious’. Their collection. Their museum. Their money.

No. It’s ours. Too often, museum management and trustees treat their audiences with contempt, whether it’s closing entire galleries at a whim for private events, or junking expert written text for links to Wikipedia, or arbitrarily banning photography, or even (yes) charging schools and academics excessive fees to use images by falsely claiming they own the copyright. But taking the public’s support for granted is a dangerous way to operate. Because one day, it could vanish.

As ever, I'd be glad to hear your views. I have made a donation to the National Gallery to cover the costs of complying with my FoI request.

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