Great Britain’s fiscal woes might help the Getty Museum

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News last week that Great Britain would hold up an export license for J.M.W. Turner’s 1839 masterpiece, “Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino,” bought at auction last summer by the J. Paul Getty Museum, came as scant surprise. The British government regularly makes claims -- often insupportable -- that this or that work of art is a crucial element of the national patrimony, and its loss to a buyer elsewhere in the world would make grown men and women fall into irrevocable despair and cause future generations to shrivel into blithering cultural idiocy.

Mostly, the real goal is just to keep the truly good stuff at home -- and who can blame them for manipulating the levers to make it happen?

One wonders, though, whether Britain might not now be facing a significant problem. Over the summer, numerous philanthropists said that proposed severe cuts to the government’s arts budget could not possibly be offset by private money, traditionally the source to which Britain turns in cases like the Turner. In late October, those cuts came anyway -- more than $160 million worth in the first four years. Pressures on private philanthropy to make up the difference will only grow. And that might help the Getty in its quest to bring the great Turner to Los Angeles.

The search is on in Britain to find private funds to match the $44.9 million the Getty had agreed to pay for the painting. Britain has until February to come up with the cash, with an extension to next summer likely. (The British government is not averse to bending the rules, either, so the money hunt might go on even longer.) But, with the lion’s share of the country’s hefty arts budget cuts coming in the next two years, and with benefactors protesting that they can’t make up the difference, will the British people be pleased to see nearly a third of the amount being slashed going to ‘save’ a single painting from export?


The question grows even larger given the artist. Tate Britain is home to the Turner Bequest-- a cache of some 300 paintings and tens of thousands of works on paper, which makes claims of national tragedy should “Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino” leave for America even more dubious than they already are.

--Christopher Knight

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