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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. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 07 2011

CoolTan Arts World Mental Health Day exhibition - in pictures

Artworks by people with mental health issues created at a charity's workshops are going on show to mark World Mental Health Day

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 15 2010

Artists go under the hammer for Oxfam

Peter Blake and Antony Gormley are among artists to create original works for a set of books scheduled for auction at the Saatchi Gallery

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