Revival of Art Galleries

Private art collectors are once again building public galleries in England.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (pictured above) has long been a model for wealthy Americans, and over the past couple of decades, rich Germans have also taken to exhibiting their private art collections for the enjoyment of the public. Karen and Christian Boros, for example, have turned a vast (and hugely ugly) Nazi-era air-raid shelter into a private-home-cum-public-gallery in central Berlin.


Britain was once the world leader in its provision of public art spaces created by private collectors. Did you know that London's National Gallery started in a town house in Pall Mall in 1824, when 38 old masters that had belonged to John Julius Angerstein, a Russian-born émigré banker, were put on show? Elsewhere, The Walker and Lady Lever galleries were based on the collections of Liverpool businessmen, the Burrell Collection on a gift by a Glasgow shipping magnate, and the National Museum of Wales on the generosity of the two sisters - Gwendoline and Margaret Davies - who had collected fabulous impressionist paintings. But war, taxes and economic decline took the stuffing out of such magnificent artistic philanthropy, and the tradition faded.


Then, along came the financial boom of the 1980s and contemporary art was very much in vogue. Out with the Old Masters and in with the New. In the art-market renaissance that began in the 1980s, galleries that were shopfronts for trading in art, such as Charles Saatchi’s, flourished. In 2014, Hauser & Wirth, a Swiss art dealer with global ambitions, opened a rural outpost in Somerset, its sixth gallery on two continents, proving that contemporary art was not just a metropolitan affair. But the revival of private galleries established for the public good in Britain is recent.


After cleaning up, literally, thanks to his invention of bagless vacuum cleaners, Sir James Dyson, one of Britain’s richest men, is planning a more glamorous legacy for himself. Last summer he achieved planning permission to build an exhibition space at Dodington Park, his Gloucestershire estate, to show their extensive collection of pop art that includes Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Yves Klein and David Hockney. The gallery will be open to the public, free of charge, for a month each year. In doing so, the Dysons are reviving a practice that used to be common.


Charles Saumarez Smith, a former chief executive of the Royal Academy, reckons that country-house owners are keener on collecting contemporary art these days, but the good taste and benevolence of the rich are not entirely responsible. Planners are more likely to grant permission for grand buildings if the public is given access.


The newly minted are not the only benefactors. Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, has recently got permission to build a new exhibition space too, at Grimsthorpe Castle, her family’s ancestral pile since the 16th century.

The 86 year old grand-daughter of Nancy Astor has accumulated a fantastic collection, which includes paintings by Lucian Freud, her lover until his death in 2011. The Lincolnshire farming flatlands over which her castle looms are rich in vegetables but not in culture, so her plan to seed them with art will no doubt be welcome.

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