Save Omai! (ctd.)

December 16 2022

There's some intriguing news in the Financial Times - the National Portrait Gallery, in its bold attempt to save Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Omai, has been considering a joint ownership deal with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. John Gapper writes:

The National Portrait Gallery considered jointly acquiring Joshua Reynolds’ 1776 masterpiece, the “Portrait of Omai” — a life-size painting of a young Polynesian islander who sailed to Britain on one of Captain Cook’s ships — with the J Paul Getty Museum in California.

The institutions would have shared the rights to display the portrait, which is valued at £50mn, between London and Los Angeles.

However, this innovative plan was shelved after one of the NPG's main potential backers, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, said it would not be able to support a joint ownership plan, preferring instead for the portrait to remain in the UK permanently. So the race is now on for the NPG director, Nicholas Cullinan, to raise the full £50m ahead of the March deadline, otherwise the painting must - as far as I understand it - be given an export licence, and thus leave the UK permanently.

Given the sum of money required, and the extremely difficult fundraising environment right now, the shared ownership plan seems to me to have been a bit of a brainwave. The Art Newspaper reported some weeks ago that the NPG had already raised half the £50m, itself an impressive feat. Personally, I don't think I'd have minded if the portrait was shared between the UK and the US - it is, after all, something of an international image. And longstanding readers will know I've wondered if we sometimes fetishise the idea of 'saving' artworks for the nation, to the extent that we might not have been bothered at all if a painting was hidden away for centuries in a UK private collection, but the minute it's bought by an overseas buyer, even if it's an overseas museum, we want to 'save' it for a UK museum. 

Into this comes an interesting intervention from the arts minister, Lord Parkinson, who has wondered, in an interview in The Art Newspaper, if the UK export committee should consider the ultimate destination for an artwork when deciding whether to block an export or not. In other words, if Omai (for example) was being bought outright by the Getty Museum, would we be as bothered about it being exported as if it was going into a private collection (in this case, the Irish billionaire, John Magnier)? Should public access, even if abroad, be considered as part of the application? Lord Parkinson has said he is going to review the export process, and wants to seek views from the museum sector. 

Anyway, let's hope the NPG succeeds in finding a further £25m - if it doesn't, it might transpire that the Heritage Memorial Fund's well-meaning desire to keep the painting in the UK ends up contributing to its departure. 

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