Here we go again. Just as the arrival of the first swallow signals the start of spring, so the arrival of a financial crisis at the Royal Academy prompts a call for the academy to sell its most prized possession: the Taddei Tondo.
Carved in Florence in the early 1500s, this unfinished relief is the only marble Michelangelo sculpture in Britain. So it sends the needle off the dial on the preciousness scale. The last time the call to flog it was heard was in the 1970s, when the academy was going through one of its frequent financial crises, caused on that occasion by sloppy management and a worldwide recession. The academy asked for government support. It never came. So the chorus started up: “Sell the Tondo.”
This time, the call is being led from inside the institution. The impact of Covid-19 on the academy’s finances has been deeper than on any other national art organisation because it is entirely self-funded. To survive the Covid shortfall, said to be £8m, the management at Burlington House has had to countenance the sacking of 150 staff. Selling the Tondo, according to the disgruntled academicians, would cover the shortfall, keep everyone in their jobs and make the Royal Academy “financially secure for years to come”.
We’ll get to the impossibility of this in a moment. First, how much would the Michelangelo actually fetch on the open market? Reports this week bandied about a figure of £100m, based on the insurance estimates from 2017, when the sculpture was lent to the Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo exhibition at the National Gallery — the first time it had been allowed to leave the Royal Academy.
Since then we have had the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for $450m (£342m) — a game-changer if ever there was one. Even in today’s Covid-reduced auction climate, the price tag on the Michelangelo would surely soar way beyond a piddly £100m to something closer to £500m. That kind of money could save an awful lot of jobs.
Pouring petrol on these conflagratory arguments has been, of all people, the celebrated pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, who recently added a podcast to his Revisionist History series in which he lamented the hoarding of artworks by national institutions. With millions of valuable objects gathering dust in the stores of museums, chirped Gladwell, why not sell a few and sort out the shortfalls? Hoarding art in stores struck him as “weird”.
He’s not wrong. Some very desirable things are languishing in museum stores. The trouble is, in most instances, they cannot be sold. That’s certainly the case with the Royal Academy.
As with most important donations to museums, the gift of the Michelangelo to the RA by Sir George Beaumont in 1830 came with a set of explicit conditions. The academy was instructed to ensure free access to the Tondo “for all artists”, so that “progress in the arts could be promoted”.
If it went to auction — and ended up touring the oceans on a Middle Eastern superyacht, reportedly the fate of the Salvator Mundi — the covenant would be broken. Even if a sale could be arranged to an appropriate institution that could ensure artistic access — say the National Gallery, not that it could remotely afford such a purchase — the money would need to go back into the RA collection and could not be used to pay staff.
Those are just the legal considerations. There are scores of others. During the academy’s crisis in the 1970s, the government extended its national indemnity scheme — which insures exhibited works of art — to include the RA. This covered the risk involved in the international loans without which the institution could not mount its blockbusters. If the academy flogged the Tondo, the government would need to reconsider that indemnity.
Then there is the issue of trust. People don’t leave stuff to museums because they want it to be sold. They leave stuff to museums because they want to help and to be remembered. If the Tondo were sold, despite the clear covenant instructions not to do so, the impact on art donations would be catastrophic.
So, no, it won’t happen. The chances of the Tondo going are zero. But there is one area in which the academicians are right to express doubts, and that is regarding the financial impact of the costly expansion that gave us the big RA rebuild of 2018. That £56m project, finished for the academy’s 250th anniversary, involved spectacular levels of borrowing and left the institution especially vulnerable.
There is a view — which I share — that things were fine as they were; that the existing premises were sufficient, and that the energies that went into the huge enlargement would have been better spent ensuring some financial robustness.
I would direct the same argument at the Tate, which has announced the loss of 313 jobs across its commercial operations in London, Liverpool and St Ives, and blamed the Covid crisis. The unnecessary building of a £260m extension to Tate Modern in 2016, the so-called Blavatnik Wing, was a vanity project too far. Hundreds of additional staff had to be hired. Now many of them are being sacked.
This boom-and-bust behaviour by our national art bodies has made the Covid crisis a lot worse. Written in neon across the front of every museum in the land should be the words: “No more vanity projects. Be happy with what you have.” They could get in Tracey Emin to design the sign.