Published  29/02/2008

A gift horse in the mouth: the Artists Rooms project and the d'Offay bequest 2008

A gift horse in the mouth: the Artists Rooms project and the d'Offay bequest 2008

On 27 February 2008 a major announcement was made at Edinburgh's National Gallery of Modern Art. Before the assembled British art luminaries, news was announced of possibly the greatest art bequest of the twentieth century and to date. Anthony d'Offay has made over his collection, valued conservatively at £125 million, to the National Galleries of Scotland jointly with the Tate Gallery.

As befits the son of a surgeon, the operation of the bequest for the public benefit has been worked out by d'Offay meticulously over the past seven years. The plan is to establish what d'Offay calls a network of 'Artist Rooms' across the United Kingdom. The first partner galleries will be such as at Bexhill-on-Sea in the South of England, and the Pier Art Gallery at Stromness in the Orkney Isles, and there will be some 50 'partners' in all in the first wave. D'Offay's wish is precisely calculated so that the public will benefit educationally.

It's really to do with education for young people. Outside London and Edinburgh it is very difficult to see great contemporary art. Art is important because it stimulates young people's creativity. If you see great art it makes you ask questions and if you ask questions it makes you seek answers. It's always been in my mind that this is something I wanted to do.

Of course the impact of this bequest will be felt immediately, in the acquisition plans of all major (and lesser) British museums and galleries of contemporary art. The range of artists concerned in the collection is massive: evidence of d'Offay's sheer brilliance as an art dealer, pursuing his field doggedly but perceptively over four decades since he was an art student in Edinburgh up from Leicester where the d'Offay family were based. The scheme 'Artist Rooms' was developed by the Director of Edinburgh's National Gallery of Modern Art (until last year) Richard Calvacoressi, also notable for finally securing (with the help of Eduardo Paolozzi) the Surrealist collection of Mrs Gabriel Keiller, itself now valued at as much as £110 million. He was assisted by Keith Hartley, his deputy, also distinguished for the exemplary exhibitions he curated there, such as last year's Richard Long retrospective. Hartley is still in post.

The story of the project must wait until fuller and better particulars, firstly for the inventory of all the artists and their works, and secondly for the plan for circulating and rotating the works to the various venues becomes more fully worked. However, by any standards, this is a brilliant project, which also exudes the sheer proficiency of Anthony d'Offay the art dealer and his wife Anne. The simple yet formulaic operational plan developed with the active assistance of the American tax lawyer, Dan Burt, in part London-based, involved a part-gift, part-sale agreement. D'Offay for his part settled for the sum of £26.5 million, which appears to have been based upon the cost to himself, of the original acquisitions, from the artists or their own executry. £2 million has been assigned to assist in the establishment of the project.

One is bound to speculate on the Doomsday scenario (which can never now occur) of a massive disposal of d'Offay's entire collection as a result of force majeure or some unforeseen disaster too awesome to speculate about. Such a deluge of contemporary works would actually devastate the contemporary art market by dropping the value within a buyer's market for at least a decade, notwithstanding the many eager institutional and private buyers waiting in the wings. D'Offay has been extremely astute and utterly responsible in evolving the present solution with Burt, Calvacoressi, and Nicholas Serota of Tate Modern. There was an episode in Edinburgh in the early 1980s when this professionalism and canniness was early demonstrated by d'Offay.

One fine work by Joseph Beuys, which could have ended up then in Edinburgh, through the activity of Richard Demarco, slipped through the net. Demarco had persuaded Beuys to create an object art work comprising two large wooden poor house doors in Edinburgh. Soon after, the then National Gallery of Modern Art expressed interest and indeed put Beuys' new creation on display. However, the NGMA were unable in the end to acquire it. Beuys intended the proceeds to go to save Richard Demarco's gallery from closure. This Editor and an unnamed unfee'd Edinburgh lawyer rapidly assisted Beuys and Demarco in finding a willing buyer, the Museum of Contemporary Art at Mönchengladbach, in West Germany, then directed by Dr Johannes Cladders. However the latter's board insisted that a dealer become involved to lend authenticity to the purchase process. Anthony d'Offay duly agreed to fill this role. The rest is history, but through professionalism and altruism combined, all involved were happy, Demarco included - except for Edinburgh, which lost the opportunity to acquire a major Beuys work, with an Edinburgh Beuys narrative, for ever.

In the present remarkable development (even the new UK Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, flushed with this early feather in his cap, claimed that the gift could not be equalled by anything since the early twentieth century) it is worth listing some of the key artists that form part of this amazing disposal for the public good. Jannis Kounellis, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys (136 works), Gerhard Richter, Sol le Witt, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gilbert and George (9 works) Anselm Kiefer (6 works) Ed Ruscha (22 works), Diane Arbus and mega-figurative sculptor Ron Mueck (well known to Edinburgh Festival-goers). There are many others. Works by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi have been reported - this needs to be verified and Ian Hamilton Finlay has one work in the collection, perhaps a surprisingly minimal presence, and was claimed to be the only Scottish artist in the bequest (pace Paolozzi?)

The stack-up of the funds raised for d'Offay was £10 millions each from the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government, £7 million hard won from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and £1million from the Art Fund. The tax on the whole £26.5 million received by d'Offay was agreed to be paid by 'intergovernmental transfer'.

Michael Spens

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA