Andrew Graham-Dixon assesses what is on offer for the £100m the Government proposes to pay to house the Thyssen Collection
AS U-TURNS go, the Government offer of £100m-plus for the Thyssen Collection takes some beating. At a time when virtually every major British art institution is drastically short of cash for such basic items as buildings maintenance, it seems more than a shade perverse. It is hard to square with Mrs Thatcher's economic doctrine of good housekeeping.
It's worth going over the story so far. Baron Thyssen-Borne-misza has made an agreement with the Spanish government under which he will loan the 700 or so greatest pictures in his collection to Spain for 10 years, commencing in 1990. It is not known which pictures will be included, but it seems very likely that those selected will also form the body of the Thyssen Collection when it does, finally, find a permanent home. It was generally assumed, until the British bid emerged, that Spain was certain to provide that home, the Spanish having seen off several other national proposals.
Thyssen has continually insisted that he will go through with the 10-year loan to Spain, but has been equally careful to point out that the long-term future of the collection has yet to be decided. The only certainty is that the paintings will remain in Spain until the year 2000. No immediate decision is necessary; in the meantime the Baron can make the most of being courted by aspiring hosts for his collection.
Opinion in this country has been sharply divided over the Government bid. But before one decides whether British acquisition of the collection would be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, one needs to establish exactly what sort of thing it is. The key question is so obvious that it seems not to have been asked: just what, exactly, might Great Britain receive in return for the £100m-plus "acquisition fee", the £25m-plus it would have to spend on a new building, and the £6m-plus per annum that it would cost to staff and maintain that building?
One important fact has escaped general notice:, it seems almost certain that the British people would not actually own, and perhaps not even control, the Thyssen paintings. None of the other national proposals to house the collection is known to have made outright ownership a proviso. Given the Office of Arts and Libraries' studied refusal to go into details, it is reasonable to assume that the British proposal runs along the same lines.
Wherever it ends up, some form of Thyssen Foundation seems likely to administer the collection. This carries significant implications. It would mean, for instance, that the paintings might well be used — as they have been used for 40 years and more — as diplomatic tools in the promotion of Thyssen business interests. It is not the most attractive of pros-pects: a British-built, British-funded gallery temporarily emptied of pictures, while its master-pieces tour South America, Russia or wherever, to ease the negotiation of important Thyssen contracts. It's not as fanciful as it sounds. Thyssen has agreed to loan his collection to Spain; the Thyssen family is known to have business dealings with RENFE, the national Spanish railways.
The Thyssen affair has been coloured by personalities. Mrs Thatcher is known to have taken a considerable personal interest inf the matter; she is said to have "pounced" on the chance of snatching the pictures from under the noses of the Spanish, and is said to have sent a long, hand-written plea to the Baron. The whole business smacks of prime-ministerial image-adjustment. While Mrs Thatcher continues to pursue the phantom of her own, personal Armada (you can't fault her timing), it remains debatable whether she is really interested in buying pictures, or glory.
The Thyssen affair has been most notable for the deafening official silence that has followed the revelation of the British bid. As "no comment" echoes from all official quarters, the whole episode has sometimes come to seem little more than a journalistic debate. The Times has played a major role in bringing the Thyssen affair to public attention. On 13 June, it carried the first, leaked report of the British bid for the pictures; numerous other articles have followed. Yet The Times, which so vocally seeks to mould public opinion in favour of the bid, is hardly a disinterested party: it was the major sponsor of the Royal Academy's recent exhibition of Old Master paintings from the Thyssen Collection.
Whatever the precise details of the Government bid, it indicates a peculiar sense of priorities. If we are in the business of spending £100m on a private art collection, there is a strong case to be made for the Duke of Sutherland's pic-tures — including Poussin's great Seven Sacraments and three truly magnificent Titians — which have been on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland since the 1940s. Sutherland's Old Masters are superior to Thyssen's; they have a long historical association with this country; their future remains uncertain. The main drawback of the Sutherland Collection is that it is, already, on public display in Great Britain; there is little glory to be won by acquiring something for the public that the public already feels it owns.
The Thyssen affair could, potentially, become extremely embarrassing for this Government. The Conservatives have been in office for nine years, during which time their attitude, to the arts in general and the visual arts in par-ticular, has been all too apparent. Take the case of the National Gallery. In 1985-6, its annual acquisitions budget was slashed from £3.3m to £2.75m, where it has stayed. The museum requires a minimum of £20m to effect long overdue repairs to a building that has steadily deteriorated due to the insufficiency of its annual Government maintenance budget. Its roof leaks; in the event of a downpour, priceless paintings have to be wrapped in polythene and rushed to safety. This is not an isolated case of neglect. Were the Baron to decide his paintings should be housed elsewhere, it would become extremely awkward for the Government to continue in its Scrooge-like funding of our national institutions.
The Thyssen Collection certainly contains great paintings. It would be great to have them, but (and it's a big but) only if national ownership were assured. If the offer falls through, the £100m must be spent elsewhere. Indeed, it is not an either/or situation. If the Government intends its bid to be taken seriously — rather than as an empty publicity stunt — it has to find far more resources for its existing, great art institutions.
As things stand, how can the Government possibly hope to convince the Baron that in 20 years the roof of his museum won't be leaking, that it won't have to close two days a week due to staff shortages — or that it won't need to sell off the odd Holbein to pay the rates'?