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May 24 2012

Knight Foundation grants $2 million for data journalism research

Every day, the public hears more about technology and media entrepreneurs, from when they started in the garages and the dorm rooms, all the way up until when they go public, get acquired or go spectacularly bust. The way that the world mourned the passing of Steve Jobs last year and that young people now look to Mark Zuckerberg as a model for what's possible offer some insight into that dynamic.

For those who want to follow in their footsteps, the most interesting elements of those stories will be the muddy details of who came up with the idea, who wrote the first lines of code, who funded them, how they were mentored and then how the startup executed upon their ideas.

Today, foundations and institutions alike are getting involved in the startup ecosystem, but with a different hook than the venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road in California or Y Combinator: They're looking for smart, ambitious social entrepreneurs who want to start civic startups and increase the social capital of the world. From the Code for America Civic Accelerator to the Omidyar Foundation to Google.org to the Knight Foundation's News Challenge, there's more access to seed capital than ever before.

There are many reasons to watch what the Knight Foundation is doing, in particular, as it shifts how it funds digital journalism projects. The foundation's grants are going toward supporting many elements of the broader open government movement, from civic media to government transparency projects to data journalism platforms.

Many of these projects — or elements and code from them — have a chance at becoming part of the plumbing of digital democracy in the 21st century, although we're still on the first steps of the long road of that development.

This model for catalyzing civic innovation in the public interest is, in the broader sweep of history, still relatively new. (Then again, so is the medium you're reading this post on.) One barrier that the Internet has helped lower is in the process of discovering and selecting good ideas to fund and letting bad ideas fall to the wayside. Another is changing how ideas are capitalized through microfunding approaches or how distributing opportunities for participation in helping products or services go to market now can happen though crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.

When the Pebble smartwatch received $10 million through Kickstarter this year, it offered a notable data point into how this model could work. We'll see how others follow.

These models could contribute to the development of small pieces of civic architecture around the world, loosely joining networks in civil society with mobile technology, lightweight programming languages and open data.

After years of watching how the winners of the Knight News Challenges have — or have not — contributed to this potential future, its architects are looking at big questions: How should resources be allocated in newsrooms? What should be measured? Are governments more transparent and accountable due to the use of public data by journalists? What data is available? What isn't? What's useful and relevant to the lives of citizens? How can data visualization, news applications and interactive maps inform and engage readers?

In the context of these questions, the fact that the next Knight News Challenge will focus on data will create important new opportunities to augment the practice of journalism and accelerate the pace of open government. John Bracken (@jsb), the Knight Foundation's program director for journalism and media innovation, offered an explanation for this focus on the foundation's blog:

"Knight News Challenge: Data is a call for making sense of this onslaught of information. 'As data sits teetering between opportunity and crisis, we need people who can shift the scales and transform data into real assets,' wrote Roger Ehrenberg earlier this year.

"Or, as danah boyd has put it, 'Data is cheap, but making sense of it is not.'

"The CIA, the NBA's Houston Rockets, startups like BrightTag and Personal ('every detail of your life is data') — they're all trying to make sense out of data. We hope that this News Challenge will uncover similar innovators discovering ways for applying data towards informing citizens and communities."

Regardless of what happens with this News Challenge, some of those big data questions stand a much better chance of being answered because of the Knight Foundation's $2 million grant to Columbia University to research and distribute best practices for digital reporting, data visualizations and measuring impact.

Earlier this spring, I spoke with Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, about how this data journalism research at Columbia will close the data science "skills gap" in newsrooms. Bell is now entrusted with creating the architecture for learning that will teach the next generation of data journalists at Columbia University.

In search of the reasoning behind the grant, I talked to Michael Maness (@MichaelManess), vice president of journalism and media innovations at the Knight Foundation. Our interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows.

The last time I checked, you're in charge of funding ideas that will make the world better through journalism and technology. Is that about right?

Michael Maness: That's the hope. What we're trying to do is make sure that we're accelerating innovation in the journalism and media space that continues to help inform and engage communities. We think that's vital for democracy. What I do is work on those issues and fund ideas around that to not only make it easier for journalists to do their work, but citizens to engage in that same practice.

The Knight News Challenge has changed a bit over the last couple of years. How has the new process been going?

Michael Maness: I've been in the job a little bit more than a year. I came in at the tail end of 2011 and the News Challenge of 2011. We had some great winners, but we noticed that in the amount of time from when you applied in the News Challenge to when you were funded could be up to 10 months, by the time everything was done, and certainly eight months in terms of the process. So we reduced that to about 10 weeks. It's intense for the judges to do that, but we wanted to move more quickly, recognizing the speed of disruption and the energy of innovation and how fast it's moving.

We've also switched to a thematic theme. We're going to do three [themes] this year. The point of it is to fund as fast as possible those ideas that we think are interesting and that we think will have a big impact.

This last round was around networks. The reason we focused on networks is the apparent rise of network power. The second reason is we get people, for example, that say, "This is the new Twitter for X" or "This is the new Facebook for journalists." Our point is actually, you should be using and leveraging existing things for that.

We found when we looked back at the last five years of the News Challenge that people who came in with networks or built networks in accordance with what they're doing had a higher and faster scaling rate. We want to start targeting areas to do that, too.

We hear a lot about entrepreneurs, young people and the technology itself, but schools and libraries seem really important to me. How will existing institutions be part of the future that you're funding and building?

Michael Maness: One of the things that we're doing is moving into more "prototyping" types of grants and then finding ways of scaling those out, helping get ideas into a proof-of-concept phase so users kick the tires and look for scaling afterward.

In terms of the institutions, one of the things that we've seen that's been a bit of a frustration point is making sure that when we have innovations, [we're] finding the best ways to parlay those into absorption in these kinds of institutions.

A really good standout for that, from a couple years ago as a News Challenge winner, is DocumentCloud, which has been adopted by a lot of the larger legacy media institutions. From a university standpoint, we know one of the things that is key is getting involvement with students as practitioners. They're trying these things out and they're doing the two kinds of modeling that we're talking about. They're using the newest tools in the curriculum.

That's one of the reasons we made the grant [to Columbia.] They have a good track record. The other reason is that you have a real practitioner there with Emily Bell, doing all of her digital work from The Guardian and really knowing how to implement understandings and new ways of reporting. She's been vital. We see her as someone who has lived in an actual newsroom, pulling in those digital projects and finding new ways for journalists to implement them.

The other aspect is that there are just a lot of unknowns in this space. As we move forward, using these new tools for data visualization, for database reporting, what are the things that work? What are the things that are hard to do? What are the ideas that make the most impact? What efficiencies can we find to help newsrooms do it? We didn't really have a great body of knowledge around that, and that's one of the things that's really exciting about the project at Columbia.

How will you make sure the results of the research go beyond Columbia's ivy-covered walls?

Michael Maness: That was a big thing that we talked about, too, because it's not in us to do a lot of white papers around something like this. It doesn't really disseminate. A lot of this grant is around making sure that there are convocations.

We talk a lot about the creation of content objects. If you're studying data visualization, we should be making sure that we're producing that as well. This will be something that's ongoing and emerging. Definitely, a part of it is that some of these resources will go to hold gatherings, to send people out from Columbia to disseminate [research] and also to produce findings in a way that can be moved very easily around a digital ecosystem.

We want to make sure that you're running into this work a lot. This is something that we've baked into the grant, and we're going to be experimenting with, I think, as it moves forward. But I hear you, that if we did all of this — and it got captured behind ivy walls — it's not beneficial to the industry.

Related:

April 12 2012

Four short links: 12 April 2012

  1. Big Data in Finance (PDF, 9M) -- Algo trading systems have begun to resemble an arms race. Competition, data, and the race for real-time.
  2. A Parent's Guide to 21st Century Learning (Edutopia, free registration required to download) -- What should collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking look like in a modern classroom? How can parents help educators accomplish their goals? We hope this guide helps bring more parents into the conversation about improving education. (via Derek Wenmoth)
  3. Chess Intelligence and Winning -- survey of IQ gaps between contestants needed to win competitions. We could view cops and killers as being involved in a grim contest. In the USA around 65% of all murders are solved. That converts to an average “murder” ELO rating difference between police and murderers of 108 ELO points. It is also known that the mean IQs of murderers and policemen are 87 and 102, respectively. So successfully solving murders is a puzzle then the “a” coefficient is 0.041, and each IQ point difference is worth 7.2 ELO points. I suspect this is masturbatory math extrapolation rather than anything significant or predictive, but the cops-vs-robbers IQ contest was an interesting angle. (via Dr Data's Blog)
  4. Etsy Hacker Grants: Supporting Women in Technology -- Today, in conjunction with Hacker School, Etsy is announcing a new scholarship and sponsorship program for women in technology: we’ll be hosting the summer 2012 session of Hacker School in the Etsy headquarters, and we’re providing ten Etsy Hacker Grants of $5,000 each — a total of $50,000 — to women who want to join but need financial support to do so. Our goal is to bring 20 women to New York to participate, and we hope this will be the first of many steps to encourage more women into engineering at Etsy and across the industry.

Reposted bydatenwolf datenwolf

December 19 2011

Would-be saviour of £15 million paintings hits back at Church Commissioners

The unholy saga of the Francisco de Zurbarán paintings at Auckland Castle just gets worse and worse. Our religious correspondent Riazat Butt reflects.

To Durham, where there is not much in the way of festive cheer now a £15m art deal has bitten the dust, and a fascinating insight into the Church of England, power and politics.

While the sale appeared to be on shaky ground for some time, the story has sprouted legs thanks to a remarkable and revealing article from banker and would be art-buyer Jonathan Ruffer, who blows the whistle in the latest edition of the Church Times on his spat with the Church Commissioners, who manage the Church of England's investment portfolio, and its top dog, Andreas Whittam Smith. Yes - that one.

Stokesley-born Ruffer was to buy Francisco de Zurbarán's paintings from the Church Commissioners and keep them at Auckland Castle, which Ruffer proposed should be restored, held in trust and become a major heritage attraction.

I am indebted to the Northern Echo for carrying an interview with Ruffer and excerpts from the article, which is by turns, astonishing and exquisite:

Andreas Whittam Smith is by nature a buccaneer: quick to offer the hand of friendship, decisive and brave. He generously accepted an apology for a remark I made which had hurt him. Andrew Brown is a very different character, the antithesis of the smutty joke: he is wholesome, serious, and dutiful. He would make an excellent minor royal. Yet these men have managed to torpedo two deals, to the detriment of one of the neediest regions of the UK.

If you'll indulge me I'm going to paste entire paragraphs from the Church Times piece - I assume you don't have subscriptions and this fine Anglican organ does go behind a paywall - so do please read on.

Ruffer continues:

Andreas and Andrew are neither mischievous nor malicious. They are decent men who have gone wrong. Through a historic accident, and a few 'myths of convenience', they appear to be no longer accountable to dio­cesan bishops or even the arch­bishops.

True, the diocesans get to elect an acting chairman, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the actual chairman, but I have seen at first-hand how the present incumbents are treated. The acting chairman's offerings are treated as "suggestions", and I witnessed last month the Primate of All England pleading for the future of the Castle. The Archbishop pleading; Andreas untouchable, untouched (my italics).

It suits the First Church Estates Commissioner to promote this chimera of absolute power. Here is Andreas in the General Synod, swatting the bluebottles of outrage at the disposal of the Octavia Hill Estates: "The assets committee of the Church Commissioners under the law establishing the Church Commis­sioners has exclusive control over the assets.

And Ruffer keeps landing those blows:

I have had to deal with these people not only with the Zurbaráns but also in my position as chairman of the Auckland Castle regeneration project. The evasions and disappointments have come like grouse — sometimes singly, sometimes in coveys.

I had to look up covey in a dictionary, I thought he had misspelled convoy, but no.

Amazingly, he has enough outrage to plough on. He concludes by saying that he issued the Church Commissioners with a deadline, it passed, thereby

...making it two slaps in the face for County Durham from the First Church Estates Commissioner and his chief executive.

Brilliant stuff.

But Ruffer insists he has not abandoned the deal altogether. He told the Northern Echo:

I'm still absolutely up for it. I will dare to make a suggestion out of my own pocket to square the circle – I am offering to put a lot more money in and I am hoping they will help me.

He said he was defending his reputation with the article:

I am explaining how someone can give a £15m gift and then go back on it – that seems a dishonourable thing to do and I look cowardly and untrustworthy.


The bishop of Durham, the Church Commissioners and Ruffer will meet this week to resolve the issue. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that summit - but not a bluebottle.


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August 10 2011

April 13 2011

The Art Fund: the nation's cultural carer

We should join forces with this charity whose thoughtful ventures include its announcement that it will increase the amount it gives to galleries by more than 50% by 2014

In a dismal financial age it is great to have good news about gallery funding. The Art Fund announced this morning that it will increase the amount it gives to galleries by more than 50%, to £7m a year, by 2014. This cultural charity already takes a leading role in buying art treasures for public galleries and buildings, such as Pieter Bruegel the Younger's painting The Procession to Calvary, which it recently helped to keep in Britain. It will now be playing an even more crucial role as a source of generosity when generosity is in short supply. But that is not all it is up to.

Just in case anyone thinks this philanthropic body is only about saving old master paintings for the nation, the most spectacular success of the Art Fund in recent years has been its financial support for the national tour of Artist Rooms, the outstanding D'Offay collection of contemporary art, which is so enriching public collections. Because of the Art Fund, great works by Warhol, Beuys and many more are being shown at museums the length and breadth of Britain.

The Art Fund, with such a diversity of good causes, surely has something for everyone, and its second announcement today, that it is relaunching its membership scheme in the shape of the new National Art Pass, is an excellent idea. This deserves to be an organisation with a mass membership that unites all tastes, ages and attitudes (except total philistinism, obviously).

You might say the fightback starts here. Enough contraction. Time to assert the value of art and join the Art Fund in its campaigns and projects to add to our visual riches. There is a lot of subtle, serious thought behind today's announcement. When I spoke to the Art Fund's director, Stephen Deuchar, about it last week, the policy he was most passionate about is the Art Fund's new programme to encourage "curatorial development" in regional museums in collaboration with London's National Gallery.

As museums purchase fewer works of art, he warned, not only do particular paintings go to private collections or abroad but the skills needed to judge, select and argue for purchases atrophy. The old skills of "connoisseurship" need saving, he believes, and the job of museum curator cannot just become about interpretation – it has to involve intricate knowledge.

I really like the sound of this project, which I hope will blossom, along with the other Art Fund ventures just announced. Works of art are complex and fascinating things. Art museums primarily exist to collect and preserve them. It does not matter how nice the cafe is, how many tours there are, or how cool the current exhibition might be if collections die on the vine. That obviously takes money, which the Art Fund is assisting with. But it also needs museums to care about their collections and to support research-based, knowledgable curators of, say, 18th-century drawings. That costs money too, and I fear Deuchar may be on to something very serious here – the danger of cost-cutting is not just the loss of particular works of art but that museums will cut back on the behind-the-scenes staff and research that constitute their intellectual treasure. Good on the Art Fund that it is fighting to save our galleries and museums, and the culture they embody.


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January 20 2011

Donor gives £2m to National Gallery

Culture secretary hails 'generous gift', which will see gallery room named after Australian philanthropist and wife

Michael Hintze – a hedge fund manager, Tory party donor and philanthropist – has donated £2m to the National Gallery, which will be spent on gallery refurbishment, it was announced today.

Room 8 of the gallery, which contains Italian paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries such as Raphael's The Madonna of the Pinks and The Manchester Madonna by Michelangelo, will now be called the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Room.

Hintze, an Australian who founded the hedge fund CQS in 1999, is a regular giver to the arts, supporting institutions including the Old Vic, the V&A and Wandsworth Museum.

The National Gallery's director, Nicholas Penny, paid tribute to the Hintzes for donating when "the need to support the arts has never been greater".

The money will be used for refurbishment, including the installation of new technology and lighting that will reduce the gallery's running costs and carbon footprint.

The gift comes as the government attempts to boost philanthropic giving.

The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said: "Giving money to arts and culture is an incredibly public-spirited thing to do and this is one of a number of generous gifts made by two exceptional people.

"Their gift to the National Gallery is truly inspirational and I hope others will be moved to follow their example."

Hintze said: "We have always sought to give back to those institutions that have enriched and given so much to our lives.

"Private benefactors have historically formed some two-thirds of the National Gallery's support and in these difficult economic times the commitment of private individuals is especially important."


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December 08 2010

Hunt offers £80m carrot to donors

Private donations to be matched by public money as culture secretary says 2011 will be 'year of corporate philanthropy'

The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, today announced an £80m match-funding scheme to encourage private giving to arts organisations, and launched a review "to encourage philanthopy across the whole of government" to be completed next spring.

In a speech at the headquarters of the bank JP Morgan, Hunt said 2011 would be the "year of corporate philanthropy" and the match-funding scheme, in which private donations would be matched by public money, "will unlock at least £160m for cultural organisations over the next four years".

Cultural leaders and established philanthropists have long been pressing for significant reforms to the tax regime to encourage giving to arts organisations, and to simplify ways in which donors can be recognised and rewarded. The Conservative arts manifesto, published in February last year, promised reforms to tax including simplifying Gift Aid and extending the acceptance-in-lieu scheme, which allows individuals to offer works of art instead of paying inheritance tax.

No measures of this kind were announced in Hunt's speech, but he said: "The Treasury are part of this review. We have a chancellor who is more committed to the arts than any other in my political lifetime. He goes to plays and takes his family to museums and he cares deeply about the arts."

He added: "It is not just about tax but about attitudes to asking and attitudes to giving. We are trying to change the whole culture of giving."

The £80m will come partly from Arts Council England, which will contribute around £50m, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which will contribute £30m. The Heritage Lottery Fund had been expected to put up money, but no contribution was announced.

A spokeswoman for Arts Council England said they had yet to work out the details of how the money would be distributed, but anticipated using it in three ways: to help arts organisations establish endowments; to match monies raised through fundraising efforts; and to offer specific help to small arts organisations who often lack the capacity and manpower to employ fundraisers. She was not aware that ACE would administer the DCMS's £30m, although a spokeswoman for DCMS confirmed this was so. The scheme is expected to start in April 2011.

Lord Myners, business secretary under the Labour government and a trustee of the Tate and Glyndebourne, said of Hunt's announcement: "I think it was lacking in substance. Fine words butter no parsnips. The key message was on match funding, yet the amounts seem yet to be agreed, the criteria for inclusion are not established and the kinds of funding are not clearly defined. The money looks as if it is existing money rebadged.

"What we need is a major commitment to the promotion of lifetime giving – the most attractive benefits of giving [artworks or artefacts to museums] come after your death, which seems a high price to pay. The acceptance-in-lieu-of-taxation scheme should therefore be extended."

He added: "The banks should show they are committed to rebuilding their reputation and public trust by offering the entire charity sector completely free banking, as part of Project Merlin," referring to the proposed scheme whereby the banks would offer £1.5bn to David Cameron's "Big Society Bank".

The shadow culture secretary, Ivan Lewis, said: "Today's announcement is all spin and no substance. There is little or no new money and a clear absence of Treasury support … These proposals will do nothing to protect arts organisations from the disproportionate cuts they face over the next few years."


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July 08 2010

The arts need a really big give

With deep funding cuts on the way, our cultural institutions must learn new ways of harnessing private philanthropy

Private donors to the arts were gratified to receive a letter from the new culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, last month. He thanked them, stressed the importance of personal philanthropy and asked if they had any ideas for its furtherance. In a year of deep cuts in government expenditure, espousing private philanthropy could be seen as a counsel of convenience, if not desperation. How much our national arts spend is to fall will not be clear until the autumn spending review. But we all know it will be painful. So, however convenient it may be to talk up private giving, it is also very necessary. And because Hunt and his colleague at the department, Ed Vaizey, have thus far displayed a genuine enthusiasm for the arts I'm going to take the minister at his word and offer a few ideas.

When the retiring vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Alison Richard, was appointed, she found an institution that needed to raise money but which was damagingly fragmented. The colleges did their own, independent fundraising, while the university lacked a coherent rationale for its "ask". Richard launched a campaign for £1bn, where any gift to a college counted towards the total, and she developed a compelling pitch for the whole university. It has been a huge success, and the £1bn target is about to be reached.

The arts sector has much to learn from this. What it now needs is an overarching appeal to individuals that creates both awareness and momentum, allowing organisations to continue their own fundraising but with additional impetus. I help with fundraising at English National Opera. Over the past three years, corporate giving has declined steeply – a direct result of the recession. During the same time, individual giving, despite the depredations of the credit crunch, has actually increased. It shows the potential that individual giving represents.

Arts & Business, an organisation that promotes partnerships between commerce and culture, estimates that individuals gave £363m to "culture" in 2008-09. It runs The Big Arts Give, an initiative that this year is hoped to raise up to £3m. But what we need now is The Really Big Arts Give. It should target a number of milestones towards an annual £1bn over, say, 10 years. All personal donations made to organisations in the sector will contribute to the total. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Arts Council England need to harness and develop the brand and marketing of such a campaign so that it really takes off. This would be a departure for two organisations that have traditionally been gamekeepers – they need to adopt a poaching mentality.

As a start, the government has wholeheartedly to encourage us to pay less tax to the Treasury. Gift aid means that charities can claim a further 20% (the UK's basic tax rate) back from the state on each donation. Higher rate taxpayers also get a personal rebate. But how widely is this understood? A professional fundraiser who has worked in London and New York says the tax advantages of charitable giving are far better explained and advertised in the US. In the current austerity you may think the Treasury is as likely to back such a campaign as Fabio Capello is to play Gerrard on the right wing. But if Jeremy Hunt genuinely wishes to increase philanthropy it is axiomatic that less tax will be paid. And a beneficial tweak to the system would be for gift aid to be an opt-out, rather than an opt-in, as it is at present.

David Willetts points out in his book, The Pinch, that the large baby boomer generation is retiring and has disposable wealth. The question is, how can more of them be persuaded to join The Really Big Arts Give? Many baby boomers' wealth is concentrated in their houses. Property values have inflated hugely over the past 30 years. Legacies would therefore be an important element. How about a nifty scheme to enable charities to realise the value of a legacy now? The major banks should agree to support this. Say a legacy of £10,000 is willed by someone who owns a £250,000 home. The bank could make the £10,000 available to the arts organisation right away, and charge a fixed 2% on the sum, payable by the person's estate upon death. Simple and painless.

We also need to find ways of leveraging the benefits the sector can offer to donors. Much of the marketing of O2, Vodafone and American Express is tied to exclusive offers for their loyal customer base. Arts organisations already do this. How much more powerful it could be with access to special events across the arts and cultural world: an arts donor card offering a wealth of lectures, private views and social events pooled by participating organisations. But for this to work as an incentive there needs to be a relaxation of the very tough rules attached to benefits received for donations – above a tiny percentage, gift aid is currently stopped. Donors should be able to receive, say, £1,000 of value annually before disqualification.

We have a complex set of motives for giving: we want to see a cause prosper; we want to belong; we enjoy being thanked. The more motives the better as long as donations are made. But DCMS could certainly do more to help donors feel appreciated. The recent letters were a good start, and an annual party in Downing Street for significant supporters (say more than £10,000 in a year) could be another valuable nudge.

None of this can, or should, replace proper government support for the arts – the mark of a civilised state. In his letter, Hunt wrote: "I am keen to ensure that through sustained support from both public and private sectors we enable artistic and cultural excellence to flourish." Cuts or no cuts, we must hold the coalition to the public bit. But in the meantime, we can all raise our game.


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June 15 2010

Ex-Virgin partner to auction British art for charity

Major acts of philanthropy by businesspeople are so rare they should be shouted from the rooftops. As in today's announcement that Robert Devereux, a former partner in the Virgin empire and Richard Branson's brother-in-law, is to sell his collection of British art to set up a charity supporting the arts in Africa. Sotheby's will hold a two-day sale in November of about 400 lots, including work by Patrick Heron, Lucian Freud, Antony Gormley and Gillian Wearing. It is expected to raise about £4m.


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